The Race to Save a Rare Slice of Japanese-American History

The Race to Save a Rare Slice of Japanese-American History
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Written by Lauren Walser

Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission and manse (parsonage), with congregation, in March 1910

Six early-20th-century buildings on a five-acre parcel of land known as Historic Wintersburg Village in Huntington Beach, Calif., tell the story of early Japanese immigrant life in the United States -- and local preservationists are racing against the clock to save the structures from demolition.

"There are very few sites like this that represent the daily life of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans," says writer and historian Mary Adams Urashima, a Huntington Beach resident who has been researching Historic Wintersburg since 2009 and maintaining the Historic Wintersburg blog since 2012. "The sites that have been preserved or listed, or are in the process of being preserved or listed, typically are confinement sites."

Wintersburg, which dates back to the mid- to late-1800s, was long a rural agricultural community and became the center of the early 20th-century Japanese-American life in Orange County.

Today, what is left of the village (which was annexed into Huntington Beach in 1957) are six buildings: the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, the earliest Japanese church in Orange County; the 1910 manse, or clergy home; the 1912 home of early Wintersburg resident Charles Furuta and his wife, Yukiko (built on land purchased by Charles Furuta in 1908); the Furutas' c. 1908 barn; the 1934 Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church; and the 1947 ranch house belonging to the Furuta family.

Yukiko Yajima Furuta stands on the porch of her new bungalow in Wintersburg Village, early 1913.

Together, Urashima says, these buildings tell the story of early Japanese settlement of the West, while also serving as an important reminder of the struggle for civil liberties that Japanese immigrants faced. The Furuta's house and farm, once a thriving goldfish and flower farm, along with the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, are rare surviving examples of Japanese-owned property purchased prior to the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which denied "aliens ineligible for citizenship" the right to own land in the state.

Further, the 1910 mission stands as monument to the early immigrant community's spiritual and social center. A surviving document outlining the founding of the mission reveals its importance to Wintersburg's Japanese community.

"The translation of that document is very moving because they were very straightforward in acknowledging the discrimination they were facing," says Urashima, a National Trust Diversity Scholar. "They acknowledged that they needed a place for the community to gather for spiritual and social purposes, but they also recognized that the European immigrant community would understand the symbolism of ... a church. It would communicate in ways [the Japanese immigrants] couldn't. It would say, 'We have common ground here and the same common goals. We want to build a life in America, and we want a spiritual life.'"

But today, the future of the six buildings is uncertain.

The Furuta bungalow as it appears today

In 2004, the land was sold to Rainbow Environmental Services, which has since proposed demolition of the structures.

An Environmental Impact Report was completed, and the National Park Service inspected the site in May 2013, concluding the buildings were in good shape and could be restored, and were potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Preservation, a declaration echoed by the National Trust.

In November, the Huntington Beach City Council, along with the owner, agreed to provide 18 months for the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force to raise enough money either to buy the property from the owner, should the owner agree, or relocate the structures to a new location.

"The optimum solution, of course, is to preserve the structures on site," Urashima says. "In California, it should be easily understood with the history of California missions that the location of a mission is essential. It's also essential for this site because it is one of the rare Japanese-owned properties, pre-California Alien Land Law of 1913."

In the meantime, Urashima says she will continue to research and share the history of Historic Wintersburg to demonstrate its importance to California history and how its preservation will create educational opportunities and transform its neighborhood.

Mary Urashima talks about Historic Wintersburg, inside the Furuta barn, as part of a California Preservation Foundation workshop in May 2013.

Urashima's book, Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach, will be released next month. And the Furuta family will be featured on an upcoming episode of public television series Our American Family.

"The history is never-ending," Urashima says. "We keep uncovering new information, new stories, new historical details. And that makes [maintaining the blog] really a great pleasure. It's just a never-ending process."

While Urashima is hopeful for a good outcome, she acknowledges the challenges that lie ahead.

"We need help," Urashima says. "We need help purchasing the property, we need help in the technical aspects of preservation, and we need help from people who know how to do fundraisers or would hold fundraisers for us. And we're also very interested in those who have creative ideas to make it a sustainable site."

She continues, "We firmly believe that there are win-win solutions that can benefit the property. ... I have to believe good things will come from this. I really do believe in this site, and its importance, and its value to California. We're not giving up. We'll keep going."

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