Shortly after December 7, 1941, a “day that will live in infamy”, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, ensuring the fate of many west coast Japanese-Americans. The orders first lines read:
“Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”
Never mentioning any race or culture of peoples, the order eventually enabled the forced relocation of over 120,000 Nisei and Issei Japanese in America inland, off the west coast. The hastily organized War Relocation Board built 10 relocation camps such as existed in what came to be called Hunt, Idaho but was located closest to Eden, Idaho. In addition to these camps, many other relocation centers, assembly stations and “internment” camps were built to support the movement of peoples of Japanese ancestry off the west coast of America.
Shortly after the creation of the WRB, Morrison-Knudson, a Boise based engineering firm, began construction on the Minidoka camp, named after the local county and irrigation district. The camp was constructed quickly and received its first internees by August of 1942. Upwards of 500 internees arrived daily at the end of that summer. In fact, facilities were so hastily constructed, and so many people arrived, that some early internees experienced health problems due to lack of sanitary facilities.
The camp was a sprawling complex of sagebrush and buildings. It included 12 housing barracks and many other out buildings. The total acreage of the camp was over 34,000 acres. This camp was located in a very inhospitable place on what could be called a prairie. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter, so barren that it wasn’t even used for farming, this area was completely different from the areas where the internees had formerly been living along the west coast.
“… these people are living in the midst of a desert where they see nothing except tar paper covered barracks, sagebrush, and rocks. No flowers, no trees, no shrubs, no grass. The impact of emotional disturbance as a result of the evacuation . . . plus this dull, dreary existence in a desert region surely must give these people a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair which we on the outside do not and will never fully understand.”
– Arthur Klienkopf, Superintendent of Education-Minidoka Relocation Center Relocation Center Diary
At its peak, the camp housed over 10,000 residents who were enclosed inside the camp by barbed wire, fences, and a system of guard towers. Although these towers were not widely used, residents remember them as particularly important and visually impressive in the whole threatening design of the camp. The barracks were constructed of wood beams, 2×4’s, and tar paper siding. Most had no insulation, featuring only a single overhead light, few windows and tar paper siding. The barracks did include a wood stove for heat as temperatures dipped below freezing in the winter and were quite hot during the summer.
Among the internment camps in America, Minidoka can be recognized for several key reasons. First, baseball was extremely popular among the young occupants of the camp. Teams from Minidoka “barnstormed” around Idaho, playing in youth tournaments, often quite successfully. Second, over 1000 young men from Minidoka signed up to fight in World War II, and this represented the highest number of incarcerees from any camp in the U.S. to join the Army. Their names are honored on a replica board of honor at the entry of today’s camp recreation.
The U.S. government officially began releasing internees in January, 1945. Minidoka camp was closed on October 23, 1945 and quickly abandoned. Barracks were sold or given away to local farmers and turned into storage sheds and chicken coops. For a long time, the site featured only the remains of several structures built of local lava rock. Finally, in 2001, the U.S. Congress and the President proclaimed money and support for a Minidoka National Monument and the effort to restore and commemorate the site began.
In 2006, Congress guaranteed $38 million for Minidoka’s restoration along with other former internment camps.
Today, Minidoka is a national historic site with structures and an interpretive trail that attracts over 80,000 visitors annually.
As a class project, 25 BSU students designed, built and erected an era authentic guard tower last spring funded by a federal grant through the Friends of Minidoka, a nonprofit group of survivors and relatives.
The BSU project was part of a course led by professors Rebecca Minsky and Casey Cline that researched construction techniques, historical context and federal building methods. Without original construction drawings, students developed the design from a single photograph using building information modeling and a one-third scale mock up. Cole Architects and Axiom Engineering, both in Boise, provided pro-bono construction drawings.
BSU’s Associated General Contractors student chapter built the 26.5 foot tall tower on campus, disassembling it to transport to the park and rebuilding there with concrete footings. A forklift helped erect the wood structure atop an X-brace base some 50 feet in the air.
The National Park Service required historically accurate details, like a cedar shingled roof and single pane windows.
Preservation Idaho is honored to present the 2016 award of Cultural Heritage Preservation to the BSU Construction Management Department, the National Park Service, Friends of Minidoka, Cole Architects and Axiom Engineering in an extraordinary team project for such an important piece of Idaho history.
In 2021, the Lava Ridge Wind Farm project announced that 400 wind turbines were planned for installation adjacent to the Minidoka NP site. Friends of Minidoka, local conservation groups, and Preservation Idaho have questioned whether this is proper due to the historic nature of the site and the need for quiet reflection that often occurs in honor of this site and its historic occupants. This discussion is currently ongoing. For more information on this issue, see https://energynews.us/2021/12/06/wind-turbines-proposed-near-a-japanese-american-incarceration-camp-prompt-outrage/.
Please visit the National Park Service website at https://www.nps.gov/miin/index.htm for more information on Minidoka NP.
Pictures courtesy of Shauna Robinson
Information provided by Wikipedia and the National Park Service