Sunday, January 25, 2009

Heart Mountain Center takes shape

Whenever I'm in Park County, I try to stop at the site along Hwy. 14A of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp from World War II. Thousands of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast were interned here following FDR's presidential order. The best time to stop is on a windy and cold January day. You get the full picture that way, what it might have been like to arrive in northwest Wyoming after being forcibly removed from your home in balmy southern California. I don't have to imagine the cold. I do have to imagine the despair and sense of abandonment they felt. The camp held up to 11,000 people from 1942-45. I look up at the camp's namesake, Heart Mountain, and try to see the heart at its summit. A geologist told me that the mountain looked more like a heart until a landslide carried away part of the summit.

At long last, the Heart Mountain site is getting an interpretive center. Ruffin Prevost reports in the Billings Gazette that the center's first phase is nearing completion, "incorporating a design that evokes two barracks from the original camp (see artist's rendering above).

And with only a handful of original buildings and a lone chimney still standing on the site, backers of the new center hope to re-create for visitors the gritty details of camp life.

"This is history - it's a big deal. I'm just so proud and pumped about being part of it, and it's going to mean so much to a lot of people," said Allen Rapacz, president of Schutz Foss Architects, with offices in Billings and Gillette, Wyo. Construction began in August and should be complete sometime next month, he said, adding that initial funding has covered building the exterior of the center's main structure, with the interior and an additional adjacent section to be completed later.

"We're trying to replicate what it looked like then, but using modern materials," Rapacz said. Sections of the center's interior will re-create barracks rooms, showing the spartan and primitive conditions under which internees lived, he said. "We will actually re-create exactly what that was like, with wood siding on the inside, and just one single light bulb in the room," Rapacz said, adding that former internees and their families will provide some original furnishings.

Dave Reetz, head of the Heart Mountain Foundation, said that one section of the center will be named in honor of former internee and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and retired Sen. Alan K. Simpson, Reetz said.

"The Mineta/Simpson Friendship Hall will recognize their unique and long-standing relationship, which has come to symbolize the enduring bond between the former internees and their Wyoming friends," Reetz said. Simpson and Mineta met nearly 65 years ago during a Boy Scout gathering near Heart Mountain, and eventually served together in the U.S. Congress.

I've heard both Simpson and Mineta speak on the subject. It's fascinating that a white boy from Cody and a "Jap" kid from the internment camp could meet and become friends -- and then serve together in Congress. Simpson's a Wyoming Republican (and an outspoken one at that) and pretty much the party's senior statesman these days. His sense of moderation fell out of favor and was negated by other Wyoming Republicans who served recently in D.C. You know who I'm talking about.

The Gazette article didn't say when the center will be open to visitors. The exterior will be completed in February, with the interior to be finished when more money's available. Funding thus far has come from state and federal governments, along with corporate and foundation money and individual contributions.

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