UW researchers, photographers chronicle Heart Mountain's past

2011-04-04T00:00:00Z 2011-08-09T00:25:06Z UW researchers, photographers chronicle Heart Mountain's past

By MARTIN KIDSTON

Gazette Wyoming Bureau‌

The Billings Gazette

POWELL   — The order issued by the Western Defense Command gave “all persons of Japanese ancestry” just 10 days to pack their bags and assemble at a collection point for relocation.

Posted in April 1942, that sign will be the first thing visitors see when they enter the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center this August.

“You could only take what you could carry,” Christy Fleming, the center’s manager, told a handful of visitors Saturday. “If you were a business owner, you’d have to sell everything in the store, plus the store. Think about your pets, your friends ...”

Fleming gave several students with the University of Wyoming a tour of the framed-out museum over the weekend before the team spread out over the grounds to conduct research.

Located between Cody and Powell, the camp was one of 10 such facilities established by President Roosevelt in the 1940s. It grew to house more than 10,000 Japanese Americans before it was shuttered in the closing days of World War II.

Kevin Miyazaki, a professional photographer based in Wisconsin, tries to take a positive view of the camp’s history, even though his father, brother and grandparents were held here the 1940s.

“My dad didn’t speak about it much until we got a little bit older,” Miyazaki said. “He passed away about 10 years ago, and if he were still living, I’d have a million more questions for him.”

Only a handful of the old Heart Mountain barracks remain on site. After the war, most were purchased by homesteaders for $1 and moved to other areas of northern Wyoming.

It’s the reuse of those historic structures that interests Miyazaki. He has spent the last four years photographing similar barracks taken from the Tule Lake Relocation Camp in California.

“The old barracks are all over the area out there,” Miyazaki said. “I’ve been photographing the reuse of those buildings for four years, and I’m just now starting to do the same thing here.”

Mac Blewer, a graduate student with the University of Wyoming’s Geography Department, said he and his fellow students are also interested in the fate of the barracks that once housed thousands of Japanese Americans.

He said their research could help further history’s understanding of the camp and the reconciliation that occurred in Wyoming when it closed after the war.

“There were over 380 barracks here, but it’s a bit of a mystery what happened to them,” he said. “We’re going to meet with some of the homesteading families who took over some of the barracks in the post-war years.”

Blewer said the research already has revealed dozens of old barracks scattered between Cody, Powell and Lovell. Some are being used as houses, others as barns. Disguised with paint and slight modifications, they’re easy to overlook.

Eric Sandeen, director of the American Studies Program at the University of Wyoming, called it a classic story of settlement in the American West.

“It’s not like the story stops in 1945 and ‘46,” Sandeen said. “Not all of the story follows the Japanese Americans back to where they went after the war. Some of it remains right here in Wyoming in the old barracks.”

Sandeen believes that the movement of the barracks has, in some ways, helped the region come to terms with past wrongs. During the war, Cody businesses posted derogatory signs refusing service to Japanese Americans.

While the atmosphere in Lovell was more accepting, the anti-Japanese sentiment in Cody was strong. Now, the community is looking to the camp as a possible economic boon — another way to bring in tourism dollars.

“I still think there’s something going on here where people in the valley have become reconciled into incorporating this story into the greater story of the valley,” Sandeen said. “It’s important for people to know about sites like this.”

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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