The five-acre slice of Huntington Beach known as Wintersburg is described as one of the last remnants of prewar Japanese history in Orange County. A former journalist wants to save its worn buildings.
By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
February 11, 2013
Mary Adams Urashima crossed through the chain-link gate and stepped back in time.
On this warm afternoon, the field was dry and rutted, a hint of the dump next door wafting through the breeze. The few buildings were tattered and filled with refuse, abused by time and vandals.
But Urashima saw a wide-open lawn where the rich soil nourished harvests so bountiful that trains would cart away dozens of boxcars at a time. The ponds where goldfish and lily pads were raised. And over there, closer to the crimson farmhouse, the kitchen garden where a family grew vegetables and herbs.
“Can you envision it?” she said.
Urashima has come to know the Japanese immigrants who settled more than a century ago in this slice of Huntington Beach once known as Wintersburg. The farmers who tilled the peat soil. The men who would go on to become civic leaders, preachers and businessmen, before their adopted homeland — fearful and at war — imprisoned them.
Historians describe this five-acre patch as one of the last remnants of prewar Japanese history in Orange County. Now, the neighboring waste management company that owns the plot plans on clearing the land.
To save the worn buildings of Wintersburg, Urashima turned to what she knows best. The former journalist with sandy blond hair and hazel eyes pored over old documents and artifacts. She has spent hours hunkered in libraries and trolling the Internet. And then she started a blog.
Trying to bring to life the faces she finds in sepia-toned photographs, she has stitched together stories of love, of triumph and of loss. She has chronicled the tiny steps of a community toward becoming American.
It is a history that is not exactly her own, but she does it for her college-age son, who is half-Japanese. She believes it’s crucial for his generation to know that, even here, they have roots that run deep.
“It became this labor of love,” said Urashima, 52. “The more you research a place, you become more connected with it and the people who were there. I want to do it right. I want to do justice to the people and their history.”
Open fields stretched as far as the eye could see when the red bungalow popped up on the soggy land that Charles Furuta bought in the years after he emigrated from Japan in 1900.
Orange County offered the promise of good weather and healthy crops, even if it wasn’t as hospitable to a young Japanese family as it was for a celery harvest.
“He was a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy,” Urashima said of Furuta. His wife, Yukiko, was his soft spot. He built a tennis court for her and didn’t want her to stray far from the farm. He hoped to spare her the taunts directed at the Japanese.
“He protected her like a flower,” Urashima said. “A precious flower.”
A community started to emerge around them. At its center was a small mission that sat on half an acre of land, founded by the Rev. Hisakichi Terasawa, a Cambridge-educated missionary who had come from San Francisco.
He encouraged congregants to establish themselves — to buy property, to start businesses. He thought the Issei, the first generation, should lay down roots for the Nisei, the second generation.
“They had guts, drive and were willing to work to get ahead in face of the discrimination of the Alien Land Law,” one Wintersburg congregant, Clarence Iwao Nishizu, said in an oral history. “They wanted to implant a foundation and steppingstone for the Nisei to follow.”
One such step and a particular source of pride was the Smeltzer Flying Co. The area’s Japanese community pulled together $4,000 — quite a sum in those days — to buy a plane. Their motivation was not so much to earn a profit, one resident explained, but to see a Japanese pilot.
And they grew the church from the tiny mission that held its first service at Christmastime 1910 into a larger congregation. They thought of that church as more than a sanctuary for their faith. It was a way to prove to those around them that they weren’t all that different.
Urashima found a poignant letter written by church founders to explain their mission:
Not having a church makes Americans distrustful of us and allows them to judge us a low class people to be looked down upon. That is the reason why we want to establish a church.
“They were still trying to prove they were Americans,” Urashima said.
Urashima has always been drawn to old barns. Sometimes she would pull over on a country road just to take a look. When she passed the old Furuta farm years ago, newly married and having just moved to Orange County, it had the same effect.
“It’s just one of those places that calls out to you,” she said. “You get a sense of how quiet life was.”
By 2004, the land was sold to Rainbow Environmental Services, a local trash hauler. Their facilities had become hemmed in by houses, schools and commercial development. The company bought the land to serve as a buffer between the dump and the community.
In recent years, Urashima has organized local historical advocates, met with company leaders and city officials and tried to raise awareness of how meaningful the site was to the area’s history. She has taken her message to City Council meetings and even a conference for those preserving Asian American historical sites.
But she plows much of her time into researching for her blog, Historic Wintersburg.
Compiling these stories has become a passion that consumes her nights, weekends and even moments when conference calls drag on at her day job as a government consultant.
“Sometimes you can’t wait for other people,” she said, “and you have to start telling the story.”
Those working with her see it as a connection to a time when Orange County had thousands of acres of orange groves and agriculture was a cornerstone of the economy.
They remember the fish ponds they’d see when catching a picture at the drive-in theater across the street, or thinking as a child that the message “Jesus Lives” emblazoned on an outside wall of the church meant Jesus actually lived there.
“They’re so precious,” Donna Graves, director of Preserving California Japantowns, said of the buildings, “because so much of Orange County’s historic landscape and buildings have been demolished. When you sever the relationship between history and the place, you’ve lost something.”
These days, visitors to the farm must wear a hard hat and sign a waiver from Rainbow with language disputing its historical significance.
Urashima said she always scratches that out before she signs. She sees this history around her and couldn’t bear to have her name attached to anything denying it.
Sue Gordon, a company vice president, has become her escort through the property. Although their intent for the land might be different, they aren’t quite adversaries. “Mary has been so wonderful in sharing these stories,” Gordon said.
As Urashima scoured the old house, now musty and sagging, Gordon said the company is in no position to simply hand over the land.
“But we’d love to see them find new life,” she said, “and to keep this history going.”
To that end, Rainbow has started working with Urashima and others to find an alternative and has offered to put up the money that would be used for demolishing the old buildings to move them elsewhere. The company is also participating in a panel, created by the city at Urashima’s urging, that will try to come up with places to move the buildings and figure out how to pay for it.
On this visit, Urashima was thrilled when she spotted a crate that Furuta had brought back from his Poston, Ariz., internment camp.
“Don’t let anything happen to this!” she told Gordon. “Look! It has his name and routing number.”
She also found an old mimeograph machine, hymnals and a packing list that might have been written in Yukiko Furuta’s cursive handwriting. Each memento connected her to the people she has come to know so well.
“They’re still here in spirit,” Urashima said. “You can feel it.”