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Working to preserve a patch of Japanese history in Orange County

COLUMN ONE

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.

February 11, 2013|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Mary Adams Urashima stands in the barn on the old property of the late Charles Furuta and his wife, Yukiko, in a slice of Huntington Beach once known as Wintersburg. Urashima, a former journalist, is working to preserve the history of Wintersburg, one of the last remnants of prewar Japanese history in Orange County.
Mary Adams Urashima stands in the barn on the old property of the late Charles… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)

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."

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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.

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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.

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