History Rescued: Returning an Original Heart Mountain Barrack

June 27, 2015 • Feature, Homepage Feature, In-depth, National, News

An interior shot of the barrack reveals the basic skeleton of the building constructed for the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1942. Photo by Brian A. Liesinger

The barrack, which has been a part of Iowa State University since the late-1940s, will be permanently moved to the Heart Mountain National Historic Landmark site this summer.

By Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

This Heart Mountain barrack is currently located outside of Shell, Wyo., on an Iowa State University geology field studies camp. The historic structure will be moved to the Heart Mountain World War II Japanese Confinement Site between Cody and Powell, Wyo., this summer. Photo by Stan Honda

This Heart Mountain barrack is currently located outside of Shell, Wyo., on an Iowa State University geology field studies camp. The historic structure will be moved to the Heart Mountain World War II Japanese Confinement Site between Cody and Powell, Wyo., this summer. Photo by Stan Honda

A barrack originally built at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War II will be coming home to its National Historic Landmark site between Cody and Powell, Wyo., this summer. The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation is rescuing it from demolition with the help of a community-wide effort.
The barrack is located in Shell, Wyo., and has been offered by Iowa State University, which has been using it for housing at its geology field studies station just outside of Shell. It has remained in service there for 50 years but has finally outlived its natural life.

Iowa State, which originally had three barracks, was aiming to demolish the building to make way for new housing. The HMWF discovered its plans and has negotiated a rescue of the building. Iowa State has agreed to donate the barrack at no charge if the HMWF can move it.

“This is an opportunity for the greater Heart Mountain community to be a part of a truly historic event,” said HMWF Executive Director Brian Liesinger. “This barrack-saving is like a barn-raising in a sense. We need local and national support to save this. Whether it is through in-kind contributions or donations of any amount, we can preserve it together.”

The HMWF found out about the barrack last summer, and upon review, found it to be in solid shape, with a few modifications. It is also complete, measuring 20 feet wide by 120 feet in length, which is rare, as many barracks were dismantled, split in half or generally modified to create houses or farm outbuildings.

More than 450 barracks were originally constructed on this site. After the camp closed in 1945 and the Japanese American incarcerees were freed, the government sold many of the barracks to homesteaders for $1 each, provided they could remove them from the site. As a result, many of the camp structures dot the surrounding landscape and continue to see use as houses, shops, sheds and outbuildings.

To maintain the historic integrity of the Heart Mountain World War II Japanese American Confinement Site, the barrack will be placed on the original spot where there once sat a barrack to house Military Police, adjacent to where the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center currently sits.

The goal is to have it in place by early August.

An archeological survey, led by Greg Smith, an anthropology professor at Northwest College in Powell, was conducted on May 2. The point of the survey was twofold: to sweep the ground on which the barrack will return for significant artifacts and identify indications of a barrack foundation to confirm an exact location.

Northwest College students, area volunteers and HMWF staff spent the day picking up broken glass, pipe fragments, square nails and other remnants that confirmed the existence of the former barracks. Smith has also agreed to assist with construction monitoring as the ground is prepared for the arrival of the barrack.

The barrack will travel approximately 81 miles for its return to Heart Mountain. After being removed from Heart Mountain, it was used by the city of Greybull, Wyo. It endured another move to its current placement at the Iowa State geology field station in the late 1940s. Because it has been cut into three sections during these two previous moves, the building will be moved back to Heart Mountain in three pieces to ensure its structural integrity.

It is estimated that the HMWF will need to raise $140,000 for the move, construction work and ongoing preservation of the structure for public view. The HMWF has already obtained a generous $10,000 grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund to help with the cost. It is currently seeking individual donations, local sponsorships and other grants to cover the remaining cost.

This will not be the first Heart Mountain barrack moved for preservation purposes, though it will be the first complete one moved to a National Historic site.

A Heart Mountain barrack is prominently featured in Los Angeles at the Japanese American National Museum and represents a centerpiece of the museum’s permanent collection. Many of the incarcerees confined at Heart Mountain were from the Los Angeles area. Others came from the San Jose and the greater Bay Area. A smaller group also came from Washington State.

The JANM barrack move was a decadelong effort completed in 1994 by 32 volunteers coming from Denver, Los Angeles, San Jose and Seattle. Early JANM leadership, including Nancy Araki, had envisioned the importance of a barrack to help tell the story of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II.

When “Mr. Heart Mountain” Bacon Sakatani found out about this vision, he claimed he knew where JANM could find a barrack, and he delivered on his promise. Sakatani had been incarcerated with his family at Heart Mountain and had celebrated his 13th birthday on the four-day train ride from California to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. He made regular visits back to Wyoming throughout the 1980s and through his connections there, the crew identified two barrack segments located very close to the original Heart Mountain site. One was a 20-foot-by-40-foot section from the farm of Tak Ogawa and the other a 20-foot-by-60-foot section from the farm of Rod Morrison.

The volunteers who arrived in September 1994 were tasked with dismantling the barrack segments and loading them on flat-bed trailers for transport back to Los Angeles. It was laborious work for the group, but by October, the fragments had been put back together in a parking lot in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo for exhibition. The segments were connected and a newly constructed extension was built onto it to extend it to the full size of a barrack: 20 feet wide by 120 feet long.

Now, one of these tattered segments stands in the middle of JANM and serves as both a gripping and haunting piece of incarceration history.

To rally support, the HMWF has created opportunities for donors to claim a role in the project. Through a fundraising website, donors can choose their level of participation and track the project’s progress. In exchange for participating, donors receive a number of awards, ranging from historic square nails used to build the Heart Mountain camp to invitations to a donor recognition event to permanent name recognition at the barrack site once it is returned.

In addition, businesses are being encouraged to “Sponsor a Mile” of the project through direct or in-kind contributions. For business interested in sponsoring a mile and the benefits that come along with it, they can email the HMWF.

With its return, the barrack brings important historical significance as a powerful artifact of camp life and beyond. It will remain a fixture of the landscape that can speak not only to the Japanese American confinement during World War II but the extended homesteading and farming history in the Big Horn Basin.

“This structure represents many things: injustice and pain, but also perseverance and resourcefulness,” said Liesinger. “And being back on this historic site will allow us to extend not only our preservation mission but our educational goals as well. Not to mention the gravity it will lend when reminding people of a mistake we must not repeat.” 

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