Russell Lee in the Northwest: Documenting Japanese American Farm Labor Camps in Oregon and Idaho

Article excerpt

The field man from the sugar beet company had a table and we signed up. Anybody over eighteen could sign up. Only a few families went and a couple of bachelors, like myself and Moose Kirabashi. I was nineteen years old.

--Yas Teramura, April 17, 2013

IN THE SPRING of 1942, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) held a conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, to discuss potential plans for the incarceration of more than 120,000 Nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants). George K. Aiken, secretary to Oregon governor Charles A. Sprague, presented the so-called "Oregon Plan," described by one attendee as the only "definite and concrete program for [Japanese and Japanese American] evacuation." (1) The plan called for the relocation of Oregon's 4,000 Japanese and Japanese American residents to former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in Malheur, Crook, and Harney counties, where they would work on land and transportation projects. Japanese Americans would also provide agricultural labor. Such labor was critical at that time, as many farmers in eastern Oregon were under contract with Amalgamated Sugar Company and had just planted nearly 30,000 acres of sugar beets. (2) Aiken also advocated for the incarceration of all persons of Japanese heritage, not just those residing within War Zone 1, which included all land in Oregon west of U.S. Route 97. (3)

The Oregon Plan was ultimately rejected by the WRA, but state and local officials decided to provide agricultural labor to Malheur County. Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, signed Civilian Restrictive Order Number 2 on May 20, 1942, authorizing four hundred incarcerees to leave the Portland Assembly Center for work in Malheur County. (4)

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Japanese Americans were initially recruited to labor camps from assembly centers in Portland, Oregon, Puyallup, Washington, and California, and later from the Minidoka, Tule Lake, Manzanar, and Heart Mountain incarceration camps. (5) Volunteers from the Portland Assembly Center traveled by train to Nyssa, Oregon. Armed guards accompanied them, instructing travelers not to open windows during the journey. (6) Trucks moved them from the train station to the campsite, in an area just outside Nyssa known as Garrison's Corner. The volunteers lived in canvas tents, in dry, hot weather, and when they arrived, there was neither running water nor electricity. When the weather turned cold in the fall, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) arranged for the laborers to move into an abandoned CCC camp in an area near Adrian, Oregon, called Cow Hollow. Some Japanese Americans lived in the camp through the early 1960s. (7) The Idaho FSA camps at Shelley, Twin Falls, and Rupert contained equally trying conditions. (8) A typical camp included living quarters, an infirmary staffed by a local doctor, mess hall, canteen or commissary, laundry facilities, bathrooms, showers, and a tent or building used for recreation and religious services.

During 1942, approximately 10,000 incarcerees left centers for seasonal farm work in eastern Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and Colorado. (9) Late that year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared the sugar beet crop had been saved, with significant contributions made by Japanese American laborers. (10) Sprague sent a letter to the editor of the Minidoka Irrigator commending the incarcerees, particularly those from Oregon, for their work in harvesting crops. (11) The WRA later estimated that nearly a quarter billion pounds of sugar had been saved. (12)

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The camps in Oregon and Idaho were documented during the summer of 1942 by FSA photographer Russell Lee, who worked for the New Deal agency from 1936 until 1943 and produced nearly 350 photos of Japanese Americans living and working in the camps. The Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission (OCHC) is now sponsoring an exhibition of fifty-five of Lee's images, set to debut in September 2014 at the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, Oregon, near the Nyssa campsite. …