History Rescued: Returning an Original Heart Mountain Barrack


Exterior of the barrack to be moved from Shell, Wyo. to its original location at Heart Mountain. (Photos by Stan Honda)

Exterior of the barrack to be moved from Shell, Wyo. to its original location at Heart Mountain. (Photos 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 (HMWF) will be 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 had been using it for housing at their geology field studies station just outside of Shell. It has remained in service there for 50 years but has finally outlived its useful life.

Iowa State, which originally had three barracks, was aiming to demolish the building to make way for new housing. The HMWF discovered their plans and has negotiated the 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 effort,” 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 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 at Heart Mountain. 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 to 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 moved from Heart Mountain, it was used by the city of Greybull, Wyo. It endured another move to its current placement at the Iowa State University 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. They are currently seeking individual donations, local sponsorships, and other grants to cover the remaining cost.

Interior of the barrack, which has been used as housing by Iowa State University’s geology field studies station.

Interior of the barrack, which has been used as housing by Iowa State University’s geology field studies station.

From Wyoming to California

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 its permanent collection.

Many of the incarcerees confined at Heart Mountain were from the Los Angeles area. Others came from San Jose and the greater Bay Area. A smaller group also came from Washington State.

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

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. He had been incarcerated with his family at Heart Mountain and had celebrated his 13th birthday on the four-day train ride from California to Wyoming.

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’ 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 at barrack.shopheartmountain.org, 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 information on sponsoring a mile and the benefits that come along with it, email [email protected]

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.”

HMWF manages the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. The National Historic Landmark site is devoted to memorializing the experiences of more than 14,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated there during World War II with a museum, gallery, archive, original camp structures, war memorial and memorial walking trail. It is located between Cody and Powell on Highway 14A. For more information, call (307) 754-8000 or visit www.HeartMountain.org.



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