When out-of-towners come for a Cody Country vacation it is usually the park or rodeo or fishing or Buffalo Bill Center of the West or something like that which gets them here. Many visitors leave, however, with a different perspective after they experience something that turns some of their preconceived notions upside down.
Perhaps it is a trip to Old Trail Town where they learn that whole families lived in small cabins as they worked hard to survive before they even considered what it would take to prosper. We’re talking about cabins without plumbing. Or wi-fi.
One of, if not the most, profound experiences to me is the Heart Mountain Relocation Center between Cody and Powell. During World War II nearly 14,000 (120,000 total at various camps in the West) Japanese Americans were forced from their homes – primarily in California – and dropped off at a remote, barren area where they stayed until the war ended. They lived in barracks built with green lumber, no insulation and virtually no amenities.
Some 450 of these barracks were built, and from 1942 to 1945 Heart Mountain Relocation Camp was the third largest settlement in Wyoming. I wouldn’t call it a city, but it was certainly big enough to be one.
In 1996 the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) was formed and is dedicated to preserving the site of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. When the foundation was created there were no guard towers, barbed wire fences, schools, dining halls, hospitals or other structures left. The barracks had been sold off for $1 each after the war, and many could be found in the region being used as barns, warehouses and outbuildings.
One of those buildings ended up being used by Iowa State University as its geology field studies station, and that actual barrack will be returned to the site where it will join the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center museum and research facility built in 2011 that replicates camp barracks.
Plans call for the barrack to be moved here this summer from Shell, Wyo. and set on the site where one of the original structures sat. While the new buildings are stark reminders, I imagine that one of the actual barracks will add another layer of perspective that will deepen the impact upon visitors.
For more information about the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, go to www.heartmountain.org. I hope you will visit the site if you are in town or lend support however you can.
I plan on revisiting this subject. There is so much more to say.
Until next week, I am lovin’ life in Cody, Wyo.