Ujifusa family farming up close

Japanese American Pioneers of the Bighorn Basin

by Dakota Russell

Heart Mountain will always dominate any conversation about Japanese American life in Wyoming. That’s no surprise. In 1940, only 645 Wyomingites identified themselves as being of Japanese ancestry. The arrival of Heart Mountain’s incarcerated population pushed that number to over 11,000. Still, the stories of Wyoming’s Japanese American pioneers, who settled in the state before World War II, should not be overshadowed.

When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, the Japanese Americans were heavily concentrated on the West Coast. Only 15,000 or so Japanese Americans lived outside of the “exclusion zone” created by the order. The federal government concluded that this population, spread thinly across the country’s interior, did not constitute a threat. Even as the government forced West Coast Japanese Americans into Heart Mountain under armed guard, Japanese Wyomingites were allowed to remain on their farms and in their homes.

Though they were never incarcerated in Heart Mountain, nearly every Japanese American living in northwestern Wyoming was affected by the camp’s existence. Their lives—both personal and professional—intertwined with the lives of the people imprisoned at Heart Mountain. Many of these early pioneers are still remembered well by Bighorn Basin locals and former incarcerees alike.

Shuichi Sam Ujifusa

Many Japanese Americans took up farming and ranching after settling in Wyoming, but few came here for those reasons. Most arrived as employees of the state’s coal mines or the railroad. Shuichi Ujifusa, who came to the Bighorn Basin as a line foreman for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad in 1906, was among the first to make northern Wyoming home.

Ujifusa, like many young men in early 20th century Japan, immigrated to America as a way to improve his financial fortunes. His family, once prosperous farmers, lost much of their land and wealth as power was concentrated under the Emperor during Japan’s Meiji era. Ujifusa was welcomed into San Francisco’s growing Japantown, but soon had to leave it. After an altercation with some of the community’s shadier characters, the elders advised Ujifusa to relocate for his own safety. They found him the railroad job in Wyoming.

Ujifusa family portrait under trees with cars
The Ujifusa family poses in front of their farmhouse outside Worland in 1926. Shuichi Ujifusa and his family are gathered around the car on the left.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, the University of Utah

Between railroad work, Ujifusa earned extra money working sugar beets, one of the state’s largest cash crops. Eventually, he purchased land and started a farm of his own outside of Worland, Wyoming. Later in life, he joked with his grandchildren about his decision to put down roots there. “You have to be careful in life,” he told them, “because you come from a dumb family. I voluntarily chose to settle in a part of the world to which 11,000 people were involuntarily removed. Think about it.” Jokes aside, Ujifusa loved Wyoming, and was a tireless promoter for the state. By the 1940s, he had convinced two of his brothers to join him in Washakie County.

Not everyone in Worland accepted the Ujifusa family, especially after the United States entered into World War II. Shuichi Ujifusa’s great-nephew, Harry, remembered that some Washakie County farmers started suggesting the Ujifusas be sent to Heart Mountain and their land given to white residents. Attorney Charles Harkins led a larger group of locals in pushing back. “These people were born here, they’re raised here, they’ve homesteaded here,” Harkins told the antagonists. “You’re the people that moved in here, you’re the people trying to take the land away, I think it’s time that you leave.”

Ujifusa Family farming full panoramic version
The Ujifusa Family on their Washakie County, Wyoming farm.
Courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, the University of Utah

Shuichi Ujifusa saw the camp at Heart Mountain for the grave injustice it was, but also as an opportunity to encourage Japanese American settlement in Wyoming after the war. As early as December 1942, he was holding a public talk inside the camp. His main object was to help workers avoid exploitation by the beet companies once the government began granting work releases, but he also “gave useful hints as to types of flowers and shrubs that can be grown in this area” and “warned the people about Rocky Mountain spotted fever and gave hints to residents on how to take care of themselves in cold weather.”

Ujifusa was not only one of Heart Mountain’s earliest visitors, but one of its most frequent. At least once a week, he would wake at dawn, milk his cows, and set off in his car toward Heart Mountain. The drive was over 70 miles, but Ujifusa would arrive like clockwork at 8 a.m. The guards became so accustomed to his visits that they didn’t even stop him at the gates. When he left at 3:30, in time to get home for the evening milking, the guards would barely look up as they waved him out. Once the administration allowed it, Ujifusa and his brothers regularly hired farm laborers, cooks, and housekeepers from Heart Mountain for temporary help. Incarcerees lived like family at the Ujifusa farm. Legends were told around Heart Mountain about the bountiful and delicious meals served there. A typical ad from Ujifusa in the Heart Mountain Sentinel saw him looking for “2 farmers, preferably Washingtonians.” It was well known that the people from Washington’s Yakima Valley were the most skilled farmers in camp. Employment at his farm was so highly sought after that Ujifusa could afford to be choosy.

Shuichi Ujifusa with baby grandson Grant Ujifusa
Shuichi Ujifusa holds his infant grandson, Grant. Grant Ujifusa would go on to become a star quarterback for the Worland Warriors high school football team, and a leading voice in the national fight for Japanese American redress.
Photo courtesy of Grant Ujifusa
Shuichi Ujifusa with family after WWII
Shuichi Sam Ujifusa, far right, poses with his children and grandchildren.
Photo courtesy of Grant Ujifusa

“Doc” Minol Ota

While Ujifusa was building his farm in Worland, Minol Ota was growing up in the small, but close-knit, Japanese American community in Cheyenne. Ota’s father, Chikahisa, immigrated to the United States in 1907, and soon found reliable work with the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming. Ota was born in the Equality State in 1916. When he was just three years old, Ota’s mother took him and his siblings to Japan, where he attended school until he was ten. Although a native Wyomingite, Ota struggled to learn English after he returned to Cheyenne.

As a teenager, Ota fell in love with the game of baseball. He played for a local team with mostly white players in Cheyenne, and for the Wyoming Niseia Japanese American club that challenged other such teams throughout the West, from the Tijuana Nippon to the Vancouver Asahi. When not in school or on the baseball field, Ota worked as a gandy dancer for the railroad. The brutal work turned him against a career in hard labor. After graduating high school, he applied to the School of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M and was accepted. He was the program’s only Asian American student.

Minol Ota portrait
Minol Ota saw his job at Heart Mountain as a way to prove his skills as a young vet, while also helping his fellow Japanese Americans.
Photo courtesy of Debbie Lienhart
Nisei baseball team
Minol Ota played in both Japanese American and racially integrated semi-pro baseball leagues in Wyoming before the war.
Photo courtesy of Debbie Lienhart

When Ota heard in 1941 that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, he sensed that Japanese Americans might be blamed for the attack, and immediately called to check on his family in Cheyenne. The Union Pacific fired his father not long after the attack, along with every other Japanese American in their employ. Administrators at Texas A&M talked of expelling Ota, but the Dean of Veterinary Medicine stood up for him. He was able to complete his degree.

Ota remembered the “fearful and humiliating” trip home to Wyoming for the rest of his life. “At each of the train stops from College Station, Texas to Denver, Colorado, I was met by police and interrogated about my status.” Ota was a lifelong resident of the West, but his native region had seemingly turned hostile overnight.

Back home, Ota began to look for work prospects. His sister Hisa had recently married Yutaka Numoto, an Issei farmer near Powell. She thought there might be a need for a vet in her neighborhood. Ota moved in with the couple and found work assisting Dr. W.H. Lee, serving farms and ranches in a 100-mile radius around Powell.

In August 1942, Ota watched the first trainload of incarcerees arrive at Heart Mountain. “I felt strange and awkward,” he remembered, “because I did not suffer the indignity they were going through.”

In August 1942, Ota watched the first trainload of incarcerees arrive at Heart Mountain. “I felt strange and awkward,” he remembered, “because I did not suffer the indignity they were going through.” By the next spring, the Heart Mountain agriculture department had started a fledgling livestock program, and Ota successfully lobbied to become the project’s veterinarian.

A friend winkingly described Ota’s duties at Heart Mountain as looking after the “physical welfare of the project hogs and social welfare of the unattached Nisei females.” One young woman at the camp did catch Ota’s eye. After he met Masako Masuda at a Heart Mountain party, Ota started making stops by the camp’s reports officewhere she workeda regular part of his visits. Ota and Masako were married in 1944, and she was granted an indefinite leave clearance to live with her husband in Powell.

Shortly after his marriage, Ota determined to set up a practice of his own in the nearby town of Lovell. The predominantly Mormon community was more friendly to Japanese Americans than some other local towns. There was still some unease about the new vet, but it quickly dissipated as Ota charmed the locals with his impressive knowledge and familiar Western manners.

Doc Ota in his office
After graduating as the only Asian American student from Texas A&M’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Minol Ota returned home to Wyoming and established a practice in Lovell.
Photo courtesy of Debbie Lienhart
Doc Ota checking on some chickens
Photo courtesy of Debbie Lienhart
Doc Ota tending to a cow
Photo courtesy of Debbie Lienhart
Doc Ota in cowboy boots
Minol “Doc” Ota quickly gained the trust and friendship of his adopted community in Lovell, and is fondly remembered there to this day.
Photo courtesy of Debbie Lienhart

The Ando & Kawano Families

Besides the Otas and Numotos, only five other families of Japanese ancestry lived in the immediate vicinity of the camp. Two of those families, the Andos and the Kawanos, interacted the most with the camp. Both families had lived outside of Powell for a decade or more and had established successful farms.

Muragi Ando immigrated to the United States in 1907, arriving in Seattle on the Aki Maru. Two years later, he was settled in Joliet, Montana and working as a farmhand. In the early 1930s, Ando, his wife Miyono, and their six children relocated to Park County, Wyoming, where he purchased a farm of his own.

Ando family portrait
Miyono & Muragi Ando, photographed in Powell in the 1930s with their daughter, Miyako Mickey, and five sonsMasao Jack, Toshio Charles “Chuck”, Tachio John, Shiro, and Koe.
Photo courtesy of A.G. Lucier Collection, Park County Archives

The government built Heart Mountain virtually in Ando’s backyard. The 65 year old Issei and his adult sons became regular visitors at the camp. Corporal Tachio John Ando of the US Army Coast Artillery Corps was especially beloved by the Heart Mountain community. Corporal Ando had joined the Army in October 1941, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Though many Japanese American soldiers were discharged after the attack, Corporal Ando was allowed to remain at his post in the Caribbean. Whenever he came home on leave, the Heart Mountain incarcerees hailed him as a returning hero.

Another of Muragi Ando’s sons, Chuck, began taking over farming operations for his aging parents during the war years. He occasionally hired temporary workers from the camp to assist him. When his mother took ill, Chuck hired a young woman, Marguerite Takaki, to cook and clean the house. “She was a pretty good housekeeper,” Chuck later noted dryly. “I finally married her.”

Another local Issei, Yonosuke Kawano, often joined Muragi Ando on his visits to Heart Mountain. In early 1943, the Sentinel announced the pair would be giving a talk on how to grow victory gardens. The newspaper glowingly described them as “pioneer farmers who have contributed invaluable aid to the [camp’s] agricultural department.” Kawano had lived in the Bighorn Basin even longer than Ando, settling near Powell around 1922 and raising a family of twelve children. In addition to lending Heart Mountain farmers his advice, Kawano also donated them some of his seed stockfifty pounds of adzuki beans and 100 pounds of string beans.

White locals in the Bighorn Basin did not look on the Kawano and Ando families with the same suspicion as they viewed the Japanese Americans incarcerated at Heart Mountain.

White locals in the Bighorn Basin did not look on the Kawano and Ando families with the same suspicion as they viewed the Japanese Americans incarcerated at Heart Mountain. After the Pearl Harbor bombing, Governor Nels Smith ordered all Wyoming sheriffs to send lists of Japanese aliens living in their counties to the FBI, and to restrict travel for Japanese American families. Park County Sheriff Frank Blackburn dutifully reported the Japanese Americans living in his jurisdiction, but argued that tracking innocent farmers was a waste of his limited resources. By the time Heart Mountain was built, Park County Japanese Americans could go anywhere they wished. This difference in treatment sometimes led to bad feelings between the Heart Mountain incarcerees and local Japanese Americans.

Enduring Legacy

By the war’s end, most of the Japanese American families in Park County were fully integrated into their local communities. Everyone in Powell celebrated with the Kawano family when star halfback Eddie Kawano—Yonosuke’s youngest son—helped win the state championship for the Panthers in 1957. Everyone mourned with Chuck and Marguerite Ando when their son Curtis was killed by friendly fire in Vietnam. Many descendants of the Andos and Kawanos still live and farm in the Bighorn Basin today.

Minol Ota also became a beloved pillar of his community. For many years, he managed Lovell’s semi-pro baseball team, and even founded the town’s little league program. In 1972, he left Wyoming, but he is still fondly remembered by longtime residents of Lovell.

1948 Wyoming State Semi-Pro baseball team portrait
Ota was the manager and centerfielder for the Lovell baseball team, and also founded the town’s first little league program.

In Washakie County, Shuichi Ujifusa discovered oil on his farm in 1951, allowing him not only to ensure a comfortable life for his family, but give back to the local community that had become his home. Ujifusa’s dream of a huge wave of former Heart Mountain incarcerees settling in the Bighorn Basin never came to pass. Discriminatory laws passed in the Wyoming legislature in the waning years of the war signalled to the camp’s residents that the state was not hospitable to them. Even so, a handful of families followed Ujifusa down to Worland after their release. By the 1950s, the town even had its own local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.

For Japanese Americans living in Wyoming outside the camp, life during World War II was remarkably different than it was for those incarcerated. Many whites in the state supported longtime Japanese American residents, often at the same time as they spread lies and hatred about Heart Mountain incarcerees. But even longtime pioneers of Japanese ancestry faced racism and prejudice. Railroads and mines fired entire crews of workers simply because of their race. The accounts of Japanese Wyomingites are littered with stories of being accosted at work, school, or on the street during the war. 

Wyoming’s Japanese Americans understood that their relative privilege was only a quirk of geography, and that any change in the course of the war could easily result in their own incarceration, or worse. It was important, then, to help the people of Heart Mountain in the small ways they could, and to foster relationships between the incarcerees and the state’s larger population. These pioneers should be remembered not only for their contributions to building Wyoming, but for supporting their fellow Japanese Americans in a time when much of the country was against them.

Research for this article was made possible through the support of the Embassy of Japan in the United States. Special thanks to the Washakie Museum & Cultural Center for the use of their oral history collection.