Commentary: On a mission to save a mission

The public comment period for the Historic Wintersburg (Warner-Nichols) draft environmental impact report (DEIR) closes on Nov. 19. The DEIR analyzes a proposal to re-zone the roughly five-acre property at the corner of Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane from residential to industrial and commercial use. The proposal also includes an application to demolish the historic landmark structures on the property, among them the 1912 Furuta home and barn, the 1910 mission, the 1910 manse and the 1934 church.

For more than a century, the buildings on the Furuta farm and the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission complex — once part of Wintersburg Village — have withstood challenges that could have erased them long ago.

Purchased between 1904-09 by Charles Mitsuji "C.M." Furuta, with the assistance of his mentor, Episcopalian minister Hisakichi Terasawa, the Furuta farm and mission site is one of two known properties in Huntington Beach owned by Japanese prior to California's Alien Land Law of 1913. Arriving in America in 1900, Furuta worked hard to raise money to buy the land and donated a portion of the land to the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, founded in 1904.

The fact that Furuta was able to buy the property is remarkable; that it remains standing is a miracle. The Furuta family and the mission congregants survived intense discrimination, the Depression and the upheaval of evacuation, incarceration and internment during World War II. They saw their children, U.S. citizens, interned also. Yet these families returned to Orange County to rebuild their lives, not knowing what they might find. Home was still here.

A walk on the Furuta farm and Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission land is an opportunity to step back in time to Orange County's rural pioneer past. There is open land, once planted with flower crops and filled with the glimmering goldfish of the Furuta hatchery. A few of the gum trees planted by Furuta for firewood still stand. The plain, whitewashed mission speaks of a people who did not have much, but who came together with a few dollars and a purpose.

An aging 1904 prospectus document for the mission — signed by Japanese from all over the county — talks about the desire to become part of their new country. Representing a typically American pioneer spirit, the document states, "it is not just a matter of hoping that it will happen, but working together to make it happen."

The mission's congregants included the Masuda family, spoken about by President Ronald Reagan at the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988; Fountain Valley's first mayor and the first Japanese American mayor in the continental United States, James Kanno; Justice Stephen Tamura, the first Japanese American judge in Orange County, first Japanese American appellate judge in the continental United States, and the first Japanese American judge on the California Supreme Court; Clarence Nishizu, instrumental in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act and present at the signing with Reagan; Henry Kiyomi Akiyama, who started with a small pond in Wintersburg to become the owner of the largest goldfish hatchery in the West; and Yasumatsu Miyawaki, who owned Huntington Beach's first Japanese market on Main Street in 1907, the "Rock Bottom Store," now the Longboard Restaurant and Pub.

Wintersburg became the heart and soul of the local Japanese community. Its history is filled with stories of immigrants who endured with humor and strength their long, winding path to the American dream. Preserving this history is a tangible lesson for future generations that the Orange County they see around them did not come easily. Allowing its demolition means we lose forever an important part of the pioneer spirit that built Huntington Beach.

MARY ADAMS URASHIMA is a Huntington Beach governmental affairs consultant and author of the Historic Wintersburg blog, and the Historic Huntington Beach blog,

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World