Seventy years ago, as World War II raged on, thousands of Japanese-Americans lived here as internees. Behind barbed wire, they managed to adapt and even to grow new life.
With the agricultural expertise of a few and the perseverance of many, internees worked tirelessly to transform the barren landscape into blossoming gardens and bountiful fields at Heart Mountain.
“It gave them something to do, a purpose to keep going,” said Kim Barhaug, facilities manager/educator at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.
A majority of internees planted their own gardens alongside the black barracks where they lived in captivity. For many, gardens provided a sense of place and a peace of mind, Barhaug said.
Unearthing the agricultural history of the 1940s relocation camp, the center is replicating internees’ growing techniques in a new garden. Inside the center, the exhibit “From the Ground Up: Agriculture at Heart Mountain” features photos, articles and displays detailing the history of internees’ agricultural practices.
This weekend, as former internees and their descendants come to Heart Mountain for the annual pilgrimage, the James O. Ito Historic Garden will be dedicated. Ito served as assistant superintendent of agriculture at the internment camp, playing a key role in developing the agricultural system that provided internees with fresh produce.
Building a victory garden
The idea of a garden as a living exhibit at Heart Mountain has been discussed for years, but it became a reality this summer.
Photographs from the 1940s were instrumental in creating a historically accurate garden, said Bob Prchal, a master gardener who has helped create and develope the garden.
“You rely on pictures and draw from them,” he said.
Each detail in the center’s new garden, from the vegetables planted to the type of wood for the fence, was carefully considered to emulate internees’ gardens.
“All of the things we planted in here were what they planted,” Prchal said.
This year’s garden contains sweet peas, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, daikon radishes, red strawberry popcorn and edible chrysanthemum flowers, Barhaug said.
“They were trying to subsist on what they were growing,” Prchal said.
Like millions of other Americans during World War II, internees grew victory gardens.
“Victory gardens were vegetable gardens planted during the world wars in order to ensure an adequate food supply for civilians and troops,” according to the Smithsonian Institute.
While most plants were grown for nutrition, some were just for aesthetics.
“In the camp, flowers were at a minimum, but they really liked hollyhocks,” Prchal said.
For fences and other features, internees were resourceful with what wood and materials they were given or could find.
“It was just whatever was left over,” Prchal said.
A clothesline adds a domestic touch to the garden.
“It was a dual-purpose clothesline,” Prchal said. “They would use it to dry clothes and also grow vines that would crawl up there.”
Around the garden, some landscape features hide modern fixtures. For example, utility pipes near the garden are now covered by replica root cellar vents built by Cody Middle School students.
Another modern feature in the rustic garden that developers kept in mind is wheelchair accessibility, Prchal said.
When creating the garden, cultural aspects also were considered, Prchal said.
“We wanted to incorporate some of the Japanese architecture as well,” he said.
That can be seen in the flat rocks as sitting areas and other aesthetic features.
In their gardens, internees could set their space apart from other identical barracks, choosing plants or trees they wanted.
“Between artwork and gardening, that’s how they could maintain a sense of individuality,” Barhaug said.
The hope is to incorporate more Japanese art someday, Prchal said.
“This garden is going to be evolving,” he said.
Many internees came from California and the Pacific Northwest, where they enjoyed a warmer climate and longer growing season. Then they were sent to the dry, harsher climate of Wyoming, where farming at Heart Mountain still was in early its stages.
“It wasn’t the land they were used to,” said Brian Liesinger, executive director of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
The camp’s agricultural efforts began in the spring of 1943.
“The internees had to first complete the Shoshone Irrigation Project, which included a 5,000-foot canal,” according to information from the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. “They then cleared several thousand acres of sagebrush to make way for peas, beans, cabbage, carrots, cantaloupe, watermelon, and other fruits and vegetables.”
Gardeners at Heart Mountain today encounter the same challenges internees faced: rock-laden soil lacking in moisture and nutrients.
On a recent summer day, Prchal chipped away at the hard ground, tossing aside rocks as he dug into the dry dirt.
“It’s back-breaking work,” he said. Prchal then paused to marvel at the internees who planted acres of crops and individual gardens with limited resources in a climate so different from what they knew.
“Isn’t it amazing to look at their dedication?” he said.
Internees also introduced new crop varieties and growing techniques to the area. They used hot beds — miniature greenhouses that were vented to protect seedlings — to help lengthen the growing season. Hot caps to protect burgeoning plants from early springtime weather also were employed in the fields.
Their perseverance and hard work paid off, as Heart Mountain internees established one of the most successful agriculture programs of all the Japanese internment camps around America.
In August 1944, the camp’s newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel, reported: “The harvest of more than 1,000 tons of vegetables last season, despite numerous hardships, indicates the measure of success attained by the local agriculture department.”
A community effort
Leaders envision the victory garden as a place where residents and visitors learn about the Japanese-American internees’ experience through a living, tangible display of their gardening practices and lifestyles.
Kids and adults also are encouraged to help with the garden and the landscaping around it. The hope is that local groups — schools, 4-H, FFA and others — take ownership in sections of the garden, returning to care for it and see the project through.
"The more people who have hands in this, the better it is for the communities," Prchal said.
Residents and groups from Powell, Cody and surrounding areas already have pitched in to create the garden. Earlier this week, members of the Powell-Shoshone FFA Chapter spent hours working on pathways at the garden.
"It's been a whole community effort," Barhaug said. "The community has really chipped in."
By participating, volunteers also can learn.
"We want those kids to not only gain perspective on what they're doing, but why they're doing it," Prchal said.
Leaders hope the kids who help with the garden will return in the future to show their families what they accomplished.
When creating the garden, Prchal maintained a local focus, purchasing materials from local businesses.
Prchal said he believes the garden will be a lasting tribute to what occurred at Heart Mountain in the 1940s.
The list of those who volunteered at the garden includes:
Rob Fontaine (soil donation)
Blue Ribbon Tree Service – Josh Pomeroy (wood chips donation)
Bob Prchal – Master Gardener (time and more time)
John Williams (time and equipment)
Brian and Carrie Peters – The Nature Conservancy Ranch/LEAF group(time, rocks, & equipment)
Ruth Johnson (pathway brick and garden tools)
Trampus Barhaug (materials)
Dylan, Carter, and Braydin Ray
Greg and Ben Smith
Cory and Danielle Constein
Pat and Jerry Danks
Patty Brus and the CHS Health Class
Antony Fink and the CHS Woodworking Class
CMS Summer Class
Tayten and Teak Barhaug