The farmers of Amache: reservoirs of resiliency
Bonnie Clark, a professor of archaeology at the University of Denver has researched the Amache site, concentrating on gardens and agriculture. As many of the Americans relocated to Amache came from the Central Valley of California and had expertise in farming, harvesting, and nursery work, the surrounding farmers did benefit from having the opportunity to hire workers. Thousands of work permits were granted annually, and Clark said at any one time, a quarter of those living in the camp were away working on area farms and ranches. The internees at Amache played a role in harvesting the 1942 sugar beet crop, some as hired labor and others as volunteers who understood the gravity of the need for harvest labor. In her research, Clark said she read letters from the Granada community and the Prowers County Commissioners thanking the Amache farmers for helping their fellow farmers bring in the harvest.
During that time, there was a German prisoner of war camp in Trinidad and some German-speaking farm families hired POWs to combat the farm labor shortage as well.
This is the only one, of the 10 camps, that was put on private property after the government condemned the land from local farmers. Amache had access to the Lamar and the now-defunct Manville ditch, and internees began growing produce successfully. They were so successful, in fact, that after the war, Clark said Granada became a produce production hub for a short time.
TENDING THE SOIL
Clark said Amache hosted its own agricultural fair that featured produce grown on the camp. Through her work with another researcher, Clark tested soils and determined that significant soil amendments had been made, pointing to the expertise of the growers.
“The fact that they worked so hard to amend the soil in this place they didn’t choose to live is amazing to me,” Clark said. “We can still find that legacy. They cared for the soil, that’s what you do, that’s the proper way to grow things and it made it possible not only for them to grow beautiful produce, but also flowers and flowering trees and everything we see planted there.”
Egg shells, fish meal, and iron slag from the blacksmith shop were all found in soil studies. The slag, she said, appears to be a way to replace iron in the soil leached out by the concrete slabs of the buildings.
Clark said researchers know from photographs and oral history that people went to the Arkansas River for plants, gravel, and soil though the plants, like Cottonwood trees that were transplanted didn’t survive without the readily accessible water like that on the riverbanks. In one excavation, Clark and her team located planting holes that contained dark soil material with higher clay content, like the soil found about three miles away from the river. She said the soil in the planting hole was clearly not from that location, but they determined it was likely a shrub from the riverbank. In the next planting hole over, she said a Chinese elm was found through testing, making it clear that riverbank soil was widely used to amend the sandier soil at Amache.
Other plants came from seeds brought to camp from home and internees also exchanged letters with friends and families who would send them seeds. Ultimately, when Amache closed after the war, some internees took seeds home with them.
The agricultural fair was attended by area residents and Clark said the photos of the fair point to produce of outstanding quality and quantity but also pride in exhibiting their harvest. Produce arranged in an American flag, a Statue of Liberty on a column of onions, the tending of Victory gardens, and even traditional Japanese cucumbers, squash, and melons.
Surrounding the one square mile camp is another 10 square miles of agriculture fields to produce food to sustain the camp. Within the camp itself, each block of barracks have community gardens, children planted and cared for victory gardens, and chicken and cattle were also raised nearby. The majority of the acreage, which was in production at the time, she said, was taken by eminent domain from the X-Y, one of the area’s large sugar beet growers. The amount of produce supported the camp and the surplus was sent to the Armed Forces. The internees working the livestock operation and fields of Amache were paid by the War Relocation Authority, she said.
Victory gardens were located around the barracks and the school children also had Victory garden plots adjacent to the camp. The agricultural fairs included competitive divisions for youth, individuals, and the blocks competed against one another. Thousands of people in the area, she said, attended the fair and the art fairs hosted on Amache.
“Many of the internees specialized in high yield produce farming because a lot of them are basically truck farmers so they became an ad hoc agricultural bureau,” she said. “They taught other farmers how to do things like hot cap field crops or how to grow celery, which hadn’t been grown on a commercial scale in Colorado. A lot of the truck farmers from the L.A. area specialized in celery.”
The farmland in the L.A. area, Clark said, was one of three major Japanese American farm settlements in California, in addition to the Central Valley and the bay area near San Francisco. Many of the landowners in these areas purchased their land prior to the Alien Land Law passed in the second decade of the 20th century in California and several other states. A similar law was proposed in Colorado in 1942 that failed. Former Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr opposed the bill, she said, and also opposed the relocations, which was not a popular stance. Clark said the attack on Pearl Harbor intensified the anti-Japanese sentiment, but the history stretches further back.
Some of the interned Americans from California owned farms and formed groups and hired Caucasian managers who oversaw the farms, ensured that notes and taxes were paid while the landowners were away. Clark said this was wise and allowed those landowners to return to their farms and nurseries after the war. Others moved to other parts of Colorado where larger settlements of Japanese American agriculturists were located, and others worked to save money to return to their home state.
In many instances, entire communities were relocated to Amache and Clark said they were able to essentially pick up where they left off, from church groups to baseball teams.
One of the best documented gardens on Amache is the fish pond, that was centrally located near the townhall-type building that became a show piece for the camp. Because the internees had the support of camp officials, they had use of a truck to take to the river to gather and haul river cobble and also had access to concrete.
Clark said it is a traditional hill and pond garden, similar to a traditional Koi pond. Without access to Koi, of course, carp and catfish were used instead. A small walking bridge was constructed that remains today.
“This was one of the reasons I became interested in the camp,” she said. “These people were imprisoned for not being American enough and they built beautiful traditional Japanese gardens and victory gardens. It’s phenomenal.”
If Amache is added to the National Park system, she said this garden is one that could be restored and be a beautiful highlight of the internees’ art and skill. Clark said three internment camps — two in California and one in Idaho — exist but Amache, which is located on the prairie, is particularly important as it connects agriculture and the heartland to what happened at Amache.
John Hopper, the principal at Granada High School, has long directed student groups in maintaining the museum, and cooperating with community groups to restore the guard tower, water tank, and a barracks building. Hopper said the story of how the Amache and Granada communities cooperated is another that deserves telling.
Clark said the community has been gracious and have been good stewards of the site. After the last internees left, the camp itself was purchased by the city of Granada, appealing because of the deep wells that were dug, which is the water source for the city. The fields were sold at auction, a decision that frustrated many residents since the land was originally taken by eminent domain. The area, she said, saw produce production even after the war due in part to some of the internee farmers staying in the area and resident farmers seeing what was possible.
Clark said a veneration for nature is very much at the center of Japanese life. Though many of those interned at Amache were immersed in their lives as Americans — from baseball to Flash Gordon, to being patriots — Clark said the central importance of nature remained true, just as it does in all agriculturists. That desire to grow and tend and essentially bloom where planted, is, she said, apparent in her research and in the historical photos and documents that tell the story of Amache.
“Every time you plant a tree, that signifies hope,” she said. “You’re not just giving up. I see them as such a reservoir of resiliency.”
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