Historic Wintersburg documents three generations of Japanese American experience, from immigration in the late 19th century to the return from incarceration following World War II. The 4.5-acre historic landscape contains six structures, including one of the oldest Japanese missions in Southern California.
Historic Wintersburg parallels the rise of Orange County as a major agricultural and economic hub, and today it is among the only surviving Japanese American properties acquired before California passed anti-immigrant land laws in 1913 and 1920. Everyone associated with the Furuta farm and the Wintersburg mission was incarcerated during World War II, as were all Japanese Americans in Orange County. This historic site is a reminder of our nation’s civil rights history and the struggle for social justice that many immigrant communities continue to face today.
Pioneering the American Experience
The first-generation Japanese immigrants, known as Issei, arrived in Orange County in 1900. Just four years later, multiple religious leaders—including Episcopalians, Buddhists, Presbyterians, and Methodists— founded the Wintersburg Japanese Mission after a community meeting in the small farming village’s armory.
Reverend Barnabus Hisayoshi Terasawa, with financial assistance from Charles Furuta, purchased the parcel now known as Historic Wintersburg from its previous owners in 1908. By 1910, construction of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission and manse, or parsonage, was complete. Although Terasawa returned to his home in San Francisco, the legacy of the mission continued with the help of Charles Furuta, who was deeded the property in 1912 and continued to dedicate a portion of his farm to the Wintersburg Japanese Mission.
As the Furuta family settled into their home and their community, Japanese Americans’ rights were systematically being taken away. Within months after Furuta was deeded the Wintersburg property, the California Alien Land Law of 1913 prohibited immigrants “ineligible for citizenship” from owning property and Japanese immigrants were prevented from becoming citizens. California’s second Alien Land Law in 1920 further tightened restrictions, which were cemented at the federal level with The Immigration Act of 1924.
These unjust laws, however, did not prevent Furuta and other Japanese immigrants from building a life for themselves in the United States. Furuta started Wintersburg’s first commercial goldfish pond in 1917. Eventually, goldfish ponds covered the property. Barrels of goldfish were taken to buyers in Orange County, Long Beach, and Los Angeles, and later shipped around the country by train.
The Furuta family were active members of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission, Charles Furuta being the first Japanese person baptized as Christian in Orange County. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. formally recognized the Wintersburg Japanese mission as a church in 1930. Though it had only been in existence for 26 years, it was considered the oldest Japanese church in Southern California. The Mission began fundraising for a larger church for their growing congregation that same year, completing the new church building in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression.
Arrests, Incarceration, and Internment
While the community at Wintersburg village had experienced considerable success up to this point, the lives of Japanese Americans were altered forever on December 7, 1941. Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Orange County residents of Japanese ancestry were arrested and detained. Among the very first people arrested were longtime congregants and elders of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission, as well as teachers, clergy, and civic leaders in the Japanese American community.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 into law on February 19, 1942, which mandated the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. As a result, roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens born in the United States.
Following the signing of Executive Order 9066, and in conjunction with other laws already in place that inhibited the rights of Japanese Americans, the entire community at Historic Wintersburg was either detained or incarcerated through the end of the war in 1945.
Charles Furuta was interrogated by the FBI on the back porch of his family’s 1912 bungalow. He was arrested and taken to the Tuna Canyon Detention Center in Los Angeles
, before he was transferred to the U.S. Army Internment Camp at Lordsburg, New Mexico. His stature as landowner and community leader, as well as his position as the president of the local Japanese Association, put Furuta on the FBI list for interrogation and arrest. Although he had lived in the United States for 42 years, he was prohibited by law from becoming a U.S. citizen and therefore classified as an “enemy alien.”
Other members of the Orange County community were similarly interrogated or sent to Tuna CanyonCivilian Exclusion Orders No. 60 and No. 61 mandated their forced removal from California by May 17, 1942. But there were some bright spots of solidarity in this otherwise dark period of time.
For example, during a hearing for church elder Kyutaro Ishii at Tuna Canyon, his longtime friend Nellie Wardlow Durall provided a testimony stating that the Ishii family were loyal Americans. Under Durall’s sponsorship, Ishii was allowed to return to Orange County to be with his family and community until they all departed California by May 17.
Prior to their departure from California, when residents of Wintersburg Village and Huntington Beach waited for buses that would take them to the Colorado Relocation Center known as Poston in Arizona, women from a local Baptist church provided them with coffee and donuts. In her 1982 oral history, Yukiko Furuta recalled that family friends “were very kind and even made lunch for them” before she and others reported to their bus to Poston.
Throughout the duration of World War II, the Wintersburg Japanese Church’s doors were shuttered. In 1945, families returned to Orange County. After arriving at Wintersburg, the Furutas began restoring the former goldfish ponds on their property and transitioned to farming flowers. The Wintersburg Japanese Church officially reopened and continued to grow until 1965, when it moved to a new location in Santa Ana.
Recognizing a Historic Legacy
Six historic buildings remain on the Historic Wintersburg property: the 1912 and 1947 homes of the Furuta family; the 1910 mission (the oldest Japanese mission in Orange County); the mission’s 1910 manse; the 1934 Wintersburg Japanese Church buildings; and the last pioneer barn in Huntington Beach, c. 1908-1912. At that time, the Furutas were unaware their family farm would be determined to be of national significance
Representatives of the National Park Service have visited the property and found that, in addition to state protections, all the Historic Wintersburg structures are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2015, the same year the endangered site was named a National Treasure, the Urban Land Institute convened a Technical Assistance Panel to help determine a future for Historic Wintersburg. Funded with community donations raised by the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force and coordinated by the National Trust, the objective nine-member panel developed a report that proposes a range of creative reuse alternatives for the 4.5-acre Historic Wintersburg site, such as public amenities and green space for the city.
New owners Republic Services—a large national waste disposal company that purchased Rainbow Environmental in 2014—raised hopes in 2016 by stating that they had no plans to demolish the Wintersburg structures and would be willing to pursue options that preserved and reuse the property.
But in February 2018, Republic unexpectedly disclosed their intent to sell Historic Wintersburg to Public Storage for development as a self-storage facility. In response, Huntington Beach council members received numerous letters in support of Historic Wintersburg’s preservation and reuse as a community resource, including statements from the Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board, Preserve Orange County, California Preservation Foundation, the Japanese American National Museum, and the national Japanese American Citizens League.
Today the National Trust is working with Republic Services, the Ocean View School District, the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, the Trust for Public Land, the Orange Coast Gakuen (a Japanese language school), members of the broader Japanese American community, and local residents to reimagine this important piece of American history to benefit a new community and to reactivate a historic gathering place for future generations.
Revive the only surviving remnant of a century-old Japantown to benefit an underserved community today.
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