Wednesday, February 22, 2012

At home in Wintersburg

One of the few remaining California cottages in the Wintersburg area of Huntington Beach.

   That Charles Mitsuji "C.M." Furuta was able to buy land and build a home in Wintersburg was against the odds.  He arrived in the United States in 1900 with little to his name, took on laborious work, and paid off debts left by others.  Furuta had intended to go to Hawaii to join his brother, but his ship was not allowed to disembark due to contagions among the Hawaiian population.  Instead, he landed in Washington State, working at a sawmill until moving to Orange County.

The celery fields of Smeltzer and Wintersburg
   "He heard about Smeltzer, the name of this area (Huntington Beach) at that time, as the place where celery was being raised and that there would be a lot of jobs here," recalled Yukiko Furuta in her 1981 oral history interview with Arthur Hansen, CSU Fullerton history professor.  "...He and four other men started their own farm ...(located along what is now Goldenwest Street, either in northern Huntington Beach or southern Westminster, below Bolsa Avenue)...They started to cultivate celery. However, they failed...They had a lot of debt and the other four men just ran away. So Mr. Furuta had the responsibility of assuming all the debt."

   Furuta worked for others--including the Cole family of Cole Ranch (see Cole Ranch and the Universe Effigy, Feb. 16, 2012 post)--until he paid off his debt and bought the five acres at Wintersburg (Warner) Avenue and Nichols Lane.  It was during this time Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission pastor, Reverend Terasawa, took him under his wing.  Rev. Terasawa was the first pastor at the Church--having helped open the Mission in 1904--and baptized Furuta.

   "He felt as if Reverend Terasawa was his father, and Reverend Terasawa treated him like his son, and his his grandchildren," relates Yukiko Furuta.  "Mr. Furuta learned English from Reverend Terasawa, commuting on his bicycle to church in the evenings."

  Rev. Terasawa counseled C.M. Furuta and other Japanese immigrants to improve their situation by buying land and putting down roots.  C.M Furuta listened.

   By 1909, he purchased the five-acre property at present-day Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane in Wintersburg, donating a portion of the land to the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission.

Finding a wife
   Furuta went to Japan  in 1912 to meet his future wife, an arranged marriage.  After they were married, the Furutas lived in Los Angeles while the Wintersburg house (on the masthead of this blog) was constructed.   Furuta "commuted by streetcar to Huntington Beach, and he used a bicycle or buggy to get from Huntington Beach to (the Warner Avenue home). He asked the bank to lend him some money. So, he borrowed money from a bank (in Huntington Beach). Because he had land (as equity), they lent the money. Then he started to build a house."

The Furuta home, circa 1912-1914 (prior to garden and goldfish ponds). (Photo courtesy of Furuta family)

   The original house was a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, an outhouse, and no city utilities.  Yukiko Furuta remembers Wintersburg (Warner) Avenue being so muddy that when it rained she couldn't walk on it.  Nevertheless, the Furuta house made an impression in Wintersburg because it was new, solid construction, and because "only three Japanese families around here then (circa 1910) owned houses" (Furuta, Asari and Terada). 

   Clarence Nishizu remembered, "The houses that (most) Japanese farmers built were just improvised shacks...The farmers helped each other build houses. They had no building inspectors in those days, so the farmers built houses any way they wanted to, just so that the walls stood up..The wallpaper of the inside walls was newspaper in some of the rooms."

   Nishizu explained the reason behind the temporary nature of most of the Japanese community's housing, "Since the farmers leased land and were too poor to buy land, most of them built houses with the intention of moving again. Therefore, the floors were built in sections so that they could easily be dismantled and moved again."

   Temporary housing was not new to Huntington Beach and not restricted to the new Japanese community.  In 1917 through the early 1920s, the present day Triangle Park on Main Street was used as "a tent hotel complex for the accommodation of persons unable to find housing...On July 5, 1921, a lease contract was signed with R.E. Wright who constructed small beaverboard houses and rented them for $30 and $35 a month of which $8 a year went to the City.  Bungalet Court, more commonly known as 'Cardboard Alley' was located on the triangular piece of land where the Horseshoe Clubhouse was later built" (City of Huntington Beach, Historical Notes, 1975).

   By 1913, the California Alien Land Law prohibited the Japanese and other Asian immigrants from owning land or property.

   Nishizu recalls, "Most of the Issei homes had running cold water, but none had hot running water perhaps until the late thirties. In many of the homes the source of water was a cistern about twenty to thirty feet deep and about five to six feet square. Water was carried up from the cistern. We had to tie the rope to the handle of the bucket and flip it back and forth so as to catch the water in the bucket."

   "...The wooden shacks we lived in were very cold in wintertime, since all of the walls outside and inside partitions were not built with two-by-four studding with wall boards on both sides. Therefore, the walls did not have any insulation whatsoever," Nishizu, a congregant of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, recollects.  "We had to use lots of futon (comforters) during wintertime and we couldn't wait to get near the stove to dress on cold mornings."

 The Furuta home, circa 2007, boarded up.  A hint of the old garden remains.

    After time, a beautifully manicured yard and garden surrounded the Furuta home, including gum trees, gold fish ponds, a kitchen garden and tennis courts.  It became a local landmark (now noted as a Historic Landmark for the City of Huntington Beach) and part of the Wintersburg community's social gatherings.  Yukiko Furuta remembers cooking all-day Sunday dinners for friends, after attending services at the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church.  

   "On Sunday afternoons all the children went in and out, so it was noisy. But they had a good time, and had a dinner together," recalled Yukiko Furuta "That was what they did on Sundays..." at home, in Wintersburg.

The oral history interview with Yukiko Furuta was conducted on June 17 and July 6, 1982, in the Furuta family home in Wintersburg (Huntington Beach) and  with Clarence Nishizu on June 14, 1982 by Arthur A. Hansen for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project, jointly sponsored by the Japanese American Council of the Bowers Museum Foundation [Historical and Cultural Foundation of Orange County] and the Japanese American Project of the California State University, Fullerton, Oral History Program. Read the full interview for Yukiko Furuta at and the full interview for Clarence Nishizu at

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The Historic Wintersburg blog focuses on an overlooked history in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, in the interest of saving a historic property from demolition. The author and publisher reserves the right not to publish comments. Please no promotional or political commentary. Zero tolerance for hate rhetoric. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links or promoting other projects, books, or publications may not be published. If you have an interesting anecdote, question or comment about one of our features, it will be published.