Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Saving Historic Wintersburg

Charles and Yukiko Furuta, with baby Ray, in the farmland of Wintersburg Village, circa 1915.  (Photo courtesy of the Furuta family) © All rights reserved.
"We are only the caretakers of these houses...They contain the wood from the old-growth forests, they are monuments to the skill of those who labored to build them, they represent our cultural heritage. To destroy them, or allow them to be destroyed by neglect, to remove their original fabric in the pointless pursuit of "no maintenance" is profoundly disrespectful both to the trees that gave their lives and to the labor and skill of those who built the houses-with hand tools..."       ~Jane Powell, author

~Updated March 2015~

     One hundred years ago, Charles Mitsuji and Yukiko Yajima Furuta, had settled into their new house on Wintersburg Avenue.  A classic California bungalow, it was washed with red iron oxide paint--matching the barn behind it--and trimmed in crisp white.   The home and the nearby Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission were prominent features on the flat farmland surrounding Wintersburg Village.

   Within a few years, the Furuta home was surrounded by a garden, flowers and fruit trees, and an earthen tennis court built by Charles for Yukiko.  Behind the house, an ofuro (traditional Japanese bath), heated with wood from the grove of gum trees on the property.  

A game of tennis on the Furuta farm, shaded by the lush grove of gum trees that surrounded the property.  (Photo courtesy of the Furuta family) © All rights reserved.

   Nearby neighbors included the Nichols family, who had moved their house from Huntington Beach to Wintersburg.  Like most rural families, the Nichols shared what they had, bringing warm goat's milk to the preachers and their families living in the Manse at the Japanese Mission.

   Across Wintersburg Avenue was the Tashima Market, where farmers bought seed and feed, and traded stories.  Housewives came to buy flour or rice, and take a moment away from cooking , cleaning, and laundry to talk with other women from the scattered farms.
A wagon filled with sugar beets races down a dusty Wintersburg Avenue toward the Southern Pacific Railroad line, circa 1914.  (Photo courtesy of the Furuta family) © All rights reserved.

    The Furuta home was beautifully decorated with cloth wall covering, upholstered wooden chairs, lace curtains, and a piano in the front room.  The furnishings were simple and elegant.  Since arriving in America in 1900, Charles had worked hard and saved his money to buy land and provide a beautiful home for his new bride.  In a 1914 photograph taken by Charles, a young Yukiko gazes at a flower-filled vase on the spool-legged dining room table, covered with a floral, fringed tablecloth. 

   At the time the photograph was taken, the local Japanese community was helping Huntington Beach celebrate the dedication of its new concrete pier, sword dancers performing alongside musicians and surfers.  
A glimpse of the "clouds and flowers" wallpaper is revealed underneath wallboard inside the Furuta family's 1912 bungalow.  (Photo courtesy of Planning Commissioner Mark D. Bixby, taken during his due diligence tour of the property in 2013.) © All rights reserved.

   At the state capitol---far from Wintersburg Village---there were other political forces at work.  California had just passed the Alien Land Law of 1913, preventing Japanese from owning land.  It would be almost four decades before the law was overturned.

   The Furutas were one of two Japanese families in present-day Huntington Beach to have bought land before the law---the other, fellow goldfish farmer, Tsurumatsu Asari.  The Furuta land is the sole surviving pre-Alien Land Law property, a five-acre goldfish and flower farm. 

   By the 1920s, gold fish ponds filled with fantails, shubunkins and comets shimmered in the fields of the five-acre Furuta farm.   Automobiles could be heard as often as the clip clop of horses on Wintersburg Avenue, still a dirt road that became a muddy mess when it rained.  Nearby, Huntington Beach was busy building its new civic center, paving roads, and struggling to keep up with new arrivals lured by the oil boom.   

The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission and Manse at Wintersburg Avenue and Nichols Lane, circa 1911-1912.  (Photo courtesy of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church) © All rights reserved.

   On the northwest corner of the Furuta farm, the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission had become an established community center, its members involving themselves in civic activities in Wintersburg Village, Smeltzer, Huntington Beach and around Orange County.  After meeting in a Wintersburg barn for six years, the rectangular wooden Mission building opened its doors in 1910.   The Mission construction began in 1909, the same year Huntington Beach incorporated and five years after the Pacific Electric Railway arrived.

   The Mission was an iconic country church, with tall windows to let in the breeze and double doors at the front opening into a simple sanctuary.  Horses would be tied up in back, under the grove of trees.  Its easy to imagine a quiet Sunday, everyone dressed in their best, children fidgeting, and conversations outside in the gardens after the services.

  For the Japanese community in Orange County, it was more than a building.  The Mission was a meeting place, a school, and a very human support system for the immigrant community.  The Mission building was a physical and symbolic achievement, a testimonial to the farmers who gave the few dollars they had for its construction.  Together--with new American friends--they had begun to put down roots.

   In the "Resolution of 1910," early supporters of the Mission resolved their purpose was "spiritual and intellectual improvement."  Signing on to the Resolution are the names of those who helped shape Orange County and Southern California.

Left: The May 29, 1910 Resolution of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, provided a simple statement of purpose and set the election date for their new board of trustees(Image courtesy of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church) © All rights reserved.

   Charles Mitsuji Furuta's name is found second on the list, below the name of Reverend Junzo Nakamura.  Also on the list:

~Yasuo Goto, a sugar beet farmer working about 180 acres for the Holly Sugar Company in Huntington Beach and father of a well-known doctor in Los Angeles' "Little Osaka" district (now Sawtelle Japantown), James Goto.
~Shuji Kanno, father of Fountain Valley's first mayor James Kanno, the first Japanese American mayor in the continental United States.  

~Henry Kiyomi Akiyama, Charles Furuta's brother-in-law and later one of Orange County's wealthiest residents as owner of the Pacific Goldfish Farm. 

~Tsuneji Chino, who ran a labor camp off present-day Springdale Avenue for landowner Ray Moore, and a relative of Henry Akiyama from Nagano-ken in Japan.

Left: One of four signature pages for the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission's Resolution of 1910, filled with the names of Orange County's Japanese pioneers.  Charles Mitsuji Furuta's name is second from the top. (Image courtesy of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church) © All rights reserved.

   By 1930, Reverend Kenji Kikuchi writes there are over 2,000 Japanese in Orange County, "most of them farmers...orange, chili peppers, vegetables," and over 60 percent of the children attend some type of Sunday school.  The previous year, fifty new Japanese families had relocated to the area from Moneta and Compton to farm strawberries.  Several celery farmers moved near the Mission, from Venice in Los Angeles County.

   The reach of the Mission was much larger than Wintersburg Village.  The Mission was involved with several language schools, including Talbert (Fountain Vally) and Costa Mesa, and had begun an additional Sunday school in Laguna BeachReverend Kikuchi reported some people traveled "10 or 15 miles on Sunday" to attend services in Wintersburg, with multiple services on Sunday, language school on Saturday, and prayer meetings on Wednesday nights.

An excerpt from Reverend Kikuchi's 1930 history of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission mentions "three (big) gold fish farms owned by our church members," which would have been the C.M. Furuta Gold Fish Farm, the Asari Goldfish Farm, and the Pacific Goldfish Farm of Henry Akiyama.  (Image courtesy of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church) © All rights reserved.

   Reverend Kikuchi's history notes the growing congregation but makes no mention of the stock market crash, harbinger of the Great Depression that caused the Huntington Beach Bank to freeze the funds of the church, along with everyone else's money.  The congregants had been putting aside money in the Bank to build a larger church.

Left: A parade near Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street in Huntington Beach, circa 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   In his 1981 oral history for the Japanese American Project with California State University - Fullerton (Arthur Hansen), Reverend Kikuchi describes running to the bank with church elder Charles Ishii to find out what happened to their money.  Later, little by little, they were allowed to withdraw small amounts and started to build.   The new church building opened in 1934, one year prior to the opening of Huntington Beach's "New Deal" Post Office on Main Street and four years before the groundbreaking of the Pavalon at the Huntington Beach pier.

   The church would continue to serve its congregants at the Wintersburg site, until they moved to a larger plot of land in 1965---six decades after its founding in the peatlands.

The Depression-era 1934 church building, the lawn and walkway later encroached upon by the widening of Wintersburg (Warner) Avenue.  This building, and the Mission and Manse buildings behind it, were used by congregants through 1965. (Photo courtesy of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church) © All rights reserved.

   The life of the Furuta farm and the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission might not have happened.  

   Charles Furuta focused on work and managed by 1909 to put enough money aside to buy land before California's Alien Land Law.  His land provided a home for the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, which in turn played a significant role in the lives of those who helped develop Orange CountyA few years later, the land purchase would not have been possible.

   As though surviving early discrimination, exclusion, celery blight, and the Great Depression weren't enough, World War II evacuation also could have dismantled what the Issei created for their Nisei children.  

   If not for a handful of neighbors who watched over farms, if not for the Ocean View Grammar School children and the ladies of the Baptist Church in Huntington Beach who came to say goodbye, if not for the Presbyteri who safeguarded the Mission site, if not for the Santa Ana Register publisher who fiercely criticized Japanese evacuation---and if not for their own faith and sheer determination---those with the Furuta farm and Wintersburg Mission may not have returned or recovered.

   Historic Wintersburg is more than a collection of old buildings. 

A mural of Charles and Yukiko Furuta---featuring their family, the 1934 church building, goldfish, water lilies and the much-loved Golden Bear---once graced the Huntington Beach Art Center.  (Image courtesy of the Furuta family) © All rights reserved.

Saving Historic Wintersburg
“There is a need in every generation to study the past, to absorb its spirit, to preserve its messages...it’s a collaboration of ourselves and our ancestors...a broader culture for the nation.”       
                                                                        ~ Christopher Tunnard

   On Tuesday, April 23, the Huntington Beach Planning Commission will hold a 7 p.m. public hearing on the draft Environmental Impact Report regarding the proposal to re-zone the Furuta farm and Mission complex property to commercial /industrial, with an application to demolish the buildings of Historic Wintersburg.  

   Four of the buildings are documented as being eligible for the National Register of Historic Places: the 1912 Furuta home, the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, 1910 Manse, and the 1934 Church.  There are hopes to add the pre-1912 barn to this list.

   After surviving a century of triumphs and roadblocks, the Furuta farm and the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission are either on their last breath or about to begin a new life through historic preservation. 

   The public is welcome to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting, or email comments to the Planning Commission via the City of Huntington Beach "pipeline," http://user.govoutreach.com/surfcity/support.php?classificationId=8936&caseType=Question&lang=&langTopic=Contact%20Department%20Director&extra3=City%20Clerk

The City of Huntington Beach city hall is located at 2000 Main Street, Huntington Beach, California 92648.  The Planning Commission, http://www.huntingtonbeachca.gov/Government/Departments/Planning/PJB/pcl/, meets in the Council Chambers, lower level. 

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Wintersburg blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.       


  1. I'm 33 years old and have lived in Huntington Beach all my life, and have witnessed the destruction of numerous old historic buildings in HB. It truly needs to stop otherwise there will be no trace of the past for kids of the future. How dare they rob future generations of their City's past. Thank you Historic Wintersburg Blog for making the effort to save this piece of our disappearing history.

    Paul Focht Email- psurfcity@aol.com

  2. Thank you, Paul. You're support and understanding of the importance of history is encouraging, particularly as we face the prospect of demolition. Hoping wisdom will prevail. Best, Mary (Surf City Writer)

  3. Thank you for informing everyone regarding the history of the Wintersburg buildings. My great grandpa is Rev. Kenji Kikuchi and its really interesting to read about the history of all the buildings and how they came to be. Thanks for not only trying to save a piece of our history, but a piece of my family history as well.

    -Lora Oyama

  4. Thank you, Lora. Your family is an important part of Wintersburg and Huntington Beach history. Rev. Kikuchi was probably the minister who had the longest stay in Wintersburg and his oral history is full of wonderful memories. Please don't hesitate to share history with us, and give our best to your family!


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.