Historic Wintersburg preservation effort gains community support

Toshiko Furuta holds her sister, Grace, with Kazuko and Etsuko Furuta, near the Wintersburg Avenue frontage of the Furuta Gold Fish Farm, circa 1928. courtesy of Historic Wintersburg and the Furuta family

LOS ANGELES — Concerned citizens in the Nikkei community have called on the Huntington Beach City Council to help preserve and protect the Historic Wintersburg site, whose status is being threatened by the proposed sale of the property to a storage company.

The importance of preserving and protecting the property, Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force member Kanji Sahara stated in an e-mail to Nichi Bei Weekly, is that “more than a hundred years ago, the Issei community of Orange County started in Wintersburg. Preserving this history preserves the history of the Japanese in America.”

The 4.5-acre parcel, located in Huntington Beach, was purchased in 1908 by Rev. Hisakichi Terasawa and Charles Mitsuji Furuta, according to Wikipedia. The land was deeded in 1912 by the Rev. Terasawa to Furuta with the stipulation that a small part of the land be reserved for the Japanese Presbyterian Mission.

The Historic Wintersburg site includes the Japanese Presbyterian Mission, the parsonage, Japanese Presbyterian Church, Furuta bungalow, Furuta barn and Furuta ranch house. The site was also home to the C.M. Furuta Gold Fish Farm.

The acreage was purchased by the Issei before enactment of the 1913 Alien Land Law that prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” — specifically Japanese immigrants — from buying property in California. “These buildings will be a reminder of the discrimination faced by the Issei,” noted Sahara, who likewise faced discrimination as one of 120,000 Nikkei incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II.

The site of the late 19th century Japanese farming community in Huntington Beach was named as one of America’s Most Endangered Places in 2014, and as a National Treasure in 2015. Both designations were made by the National Trust for Historic Preservations.

Nancy Oda, president of a coalition seeking to preserve Tuna Canyon Detention Station — where some Wintersburg Issei were detained — as a historic site, stated in a letter to the Huntington Beach City Council, “Historic Wintersburg is an important part of American history that must be preserved. How will our children learn about the sacrifices of the pioneers and immigrants who paved the way for their lives today? The impact of this site reaches across the state, nation and world as a National Treasure …”

Owner Considers Sale
The effort to preserve Historic Wintersburg started a few years after Furuta sold his property in 2004 to Rainbow Environmental Services, a waste disposal company. In July 2012, the Huntington Beach City Council created the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force.

The Task Force is led by Mary Adams Urashima, a Caucasian who was once married to a Sansei, Sahara reported. “Mary is the driving force … There are only a few Nikkei on the Task Force.”

Rainbow sold the property in 2014 to Republic Services, which sought to demolish all the historic structures. Two lawsuits filed by Ocean View School District challenging Republic’s planned demolition persuaded the company to reconsider. In January 2018, Republic announced it would sell the Historic Wintersburg property to Public Storage.

‘Shocked and Dismayed’
Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey exclaimed that his group is “shocked and dismayed that, despite previous assurances, property owner Republic Services has moved to sell the Historic Wintersburg site to Public Storage. Despite the site’s significance to the local community, the Japanese American community, and our nation, it appears these companies have placed their narrow interests above all else.”

The Los Angeles-based Manzanar Committee previously succeeded in getting the Manzanar concentration camp site recognized as a state landmark and a national landmark, Embrey explained over the telephone. “Preservation of these historic sites has always been part of our mission … It’s about making sure the story of the Nikkei community in the United States has been told … preferably by the Nikkei and done in a way that is accurate and comprehensive.”

The Japanese American story is not uncommon in America, Embrey pointed out. “The first Anti-Asian law was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and America passed other laws targeting Asians. Anti-miscegenation laws in California prohibited whites from marrying any non-white—not just Asians, but African Americans and Mexicans. I’m hapa and my parents were married in 1948, two years after that law was repealed.”

“Wintersburg is a great example of how strong our Issei families were … how they persevered and prospered despite these efforts to restrict their immigration, their land ownership, their economic success,” Embrey said. “It is really a Japanese American story of how the Issei faced incredible obstacles to being accepted in this country.”

The forced removal of the entire West Coast Nikkei community into wartime concentration camps like Manzanar was “definitely one of the ugliest, most destructive acts of America against a community,” he noted. “But now Manzanar is a national park. Over a 100,000 people visit every year, and they can see very clearly what happened … So it’s turned into something that’s very positive.”

The same could be true for Wintersburg, Embrey stated. “It can show exactly and accurately the history of Wintersburg … what many of the Issei faced throughout the United States. That’s why preservation is absolutely essential … so that people understand our history.”

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