I’m writing from Cody, Wyoming, roughly 15 miles from the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. When I decided to come back to Heart Mountain and spend a month here, I admit I was a little apprehensive. I hadn’t spent a full month away from home as far back as I could remember, much less in a town with a population at the last census of 9,520 people.
To make matters worse, 95% of that population was white. In fact, the only other Asians I’ve seen in the streets are tourists on their way to Yellowstone.
As I headed into Cody after a two-hour drive on a lonely highway from Billings, Montana, I was delighted to find the main street bustling with people. I rented a house just off Sheridan Avenue in the heart of town, less than a mile from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center that housed five museums in one. To add to my excitement, just across the street was none other than the Sierra Trading Club Outlet. It seemed that the best that Cody had to offer was at my doorstep.
Looming in the distance, I saw the backside of a tall peak that curiously appeared different from the back, but on closer look it was undeniably Heart Mountain.
I’m here with photographer Stan Honda to conduct research and put together a book and film on the barracks that dot the landscape all around the area of Cody and Powell, the two towns that bookend the iconic Heart Mountain peak.
I knew that when the camp closed in 1945, the 400-some-odd buildings were sold to local homesteaders for $1 each. They were sawed in half, mostly by hand, and turned into sheds, garages, and homes. In fact, they were so valuable to the qualified veteran homesteaders, who received farm acreage along with the barracks in three drawings held from 1947 to 1949, I’ve been told that there was no way they could have made it through the minus-30-degree winters without them.
Those who were incarcerated at Heart Mountain remember those freezing temperatures better than any homesteader. However, it’s fascinating to hear stories from the Caucasian settlers who received the barracks from the Bureau of Reclamation two years after the last Japanese detainees left Heart Mountain.
It wasn’t long after they moved the buildings onto their homestead land that they found out how hard it was to survive the freezing cold and heartless wind in these shoddy buildings. Warm Morning stoves (best known by camp survivors as pot-bellied stoves) inside the barracks were their sole source of heat for the first few years. To make matters worse for them than those who lived in camp, they had no electricity and no running water.
Remarkably, there are still a surprisingly large number of barracks buildings that managed to survive the 73 years from the time they were so hastily constructed. Some of them are clearly identifiable by their weathered wood and time-worn condition; others barely resemble the original structures because they have been sawn in half and turned into homes, plastered or covered with metal sheeting, re-roofed and painted.
Pieces of the familiar 20’ x 120’ buildings are sometimes easy to spot with the distinguishing characteristics being the 20’ width of the buildings, the nine-pane windows, remnants of tarpaper hanging from the roofs, the electrical pole on one end, and characteristic doors. Still others barely resemble the original buildings as they have been remodeled and transformed into comfortable homes for the original homesteaders and their families that remain here, some of whom still live in them today.
In learning a lot about what happened when more than 10,000 Japanese Americans left the camps and their barracks behind, I am talking to people who have made the area once occupied by the detention center their home. By my living here for a full month, I’m inhaling the Wyoming air and feeling close to the land that both former detainees and local residents know so well. I’m getting a sense of this place on a journey that involves wide-open landscapes, extreme weather changes, strong winds, and extremely conservative values.
Most importantly, I’m getting to know the people who’ve chosen to settle here, including sisters Ruth Pfaff and Jane Chelberg, whose parents Chester and Mary Blackburn were homesteaders who took an early and avid interest in the Japanese Americans once incarcerated in this area.
I’m also learning first-hand the story of a peak that symbolized different things to different people. Visible from every direction within a radius of 20 miles, Heart Mountain speaks loudly to everyone who comes here — whether forcefully or voluntarily — and I can’t wait to share the stories it tells as I continue to research and write about it for the book and film that will be completed in 2016.
Sharon Yamato is writing this week from Cody, Wyoming, and she can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.