The Forgotten Plains
Colorado's high prairie has long been ignored, passed over for the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Here, we pay homage to the flat expanse east of the Front Range, home to an independent, humble, rugged way of life.
They came by train, via California, mostly—dozens at first, then hundreds, and finally thousands. Men, women, children. Packed away, tagged like cattle, and sent east, to the Colorado Plains.
The first of them pulled into Granada in the late summer of 1942 to make their new lives on a patch of farmland along the old Santa Fe Trail. By then, the barracks, the fire station, and the guard towers had been built west of town, up a hill along a dirt path that locals would name Jap Camp Road.
The Japanese who lived in Colorado, in Arizona, in California, in the remotest lands the nation had to offer, were interned on an executive order following the bombings at Pearl Harbor. Although about two-thirds of the interned were American citizens, they were forced from homes, from jobs and families, and shipped to camps across North America. Of them, the Granada Relocation Camp, near the Colorado-Kansas border, was the smallest in the land. Those who were detained ran stores and landscaped the once-barren plot and had children. For some—maybe most—of the detainees, the center was nothing more than a hellish stop on the road of life.
Today, John Hopper stands over the grave of one of the less fortunate souls who lived here. The clouds have moved in this morning, casting a shadow over the granite headstone: Matsuda Baby, Dec. 25, 1944.
"We got an e-mail awhile back from one of the sons of the mom," says Hopper, a 46-year-old high school teacher and the de facto caretaker of the camp, which is now an abandoned 500-acre parcel covered in scrub, craggy Chinese elms, and rattlesnakes. "They were strawberry farmers in California before they were sent here, and the move put a lot of stress on the mother. The baby died soon after birth."
As he says this, his hair flaps in the wind. Three students from Hopper's high school class are working behind him, watering and trimming the shrubs—teenagers helping to save this deserted piece of land.
Nineteen years ago, Hopper, then a 27-year-old master's graduate from Alamosa's Adams State College, was hired as Granada's high school history, government, and geography teacher. As a kid growing up 50 miles away in Las Animas, he'd heard stories about the relocation center—later renamed Camp Amache, after the daughter of a Cheyenne Indian chief—from his mother, a hospital dietician who counted one of the camp's former interned residents as a friend. When he first arrived in Granada, Hopper drove a mile outside of town to a hill dotted with crops and roaming livestock, a place lost to time. Hopper saw dozens of cracked and scuffed concrete slabs where barracks once stood, where a school was built, where the mess halls had been. Many of the elms—which campers dug from a nearby riverbed, carried up the hill, and lovingly placed in neat rows throughout the camp—were dead and broken, toppled with roots exposed on the dust-choked land. The cemetery was wrapped with barbed wire; headstones were buried under weeds. Cows grazed nearby. "I'm from the Plains, so what I saw didn't surprise me," Hopper says of the forsaken plot. "My first impression wasn't, 'How shocking.' It was, 'I'm standing on a piece of living history.' "
At its height in October 1943, Amache housed nearly 7,500 people. Before it closed in 1945, at least 10,000 people had called the camp home. Sons went to Boy Scouts meetings and flew the American flag; daughters joined the National Honor Society; husbands fought in World War II and built koi ponds at home with sticks and concrete and rocks; wives watered the elms planted along the barracks.
Hopper wanted his students to see this place as he saw it: not as an abandoned hillside dumping ground, but as a living, breathing piece of the past that needed a good bit of attention. So he lobbied the high school to allow him to create a for-credit, by-application-only, three-year class focused entirely on preserving the camp and its history. It has become one of the school's most highly regarded and popular classes—a trend only heightened by the fact that senior students travel to Japan at the completion of the program.
Around these parts, though, it was tough getting people to care about that long-forgotten piece of land as much as Hopper and his band of history students did. For some longtime residents, mostly farmers, there was resentment toward the federal government for putting the camp near the town in the first place. Prime farmland was taken to build Amache. And Amache's school was actually nicer than Granada's.
"There was World War II, and we had a situation where feelings were being raised—and it was very difficult to deal with," Granada mayor Jerene DeBono says today. "I grew up here, and I never visited the camp. My mom never went there. We didn't know much about Amache until Mr. Hopper arrived. We knew it was there, but we didn't discuss it."
But Hopper has pressed on. There's now an Amache museum in town, and the camp has been put on the National Register of Historic Places. Eventually, Hopper plans to bring back the old barracks, now scattered about the Plains, to create an interpretive-history site, making it Colorado's closest equivalent to Valley Forge, Bunker Hill, or Gettysburg. "This could be a really big boon to the community," says mayor DeBono, who's helping Hopper with the project. "This won't just be another Plains town. It'll be a destination." —RS