The Town That Forgot About Its Japanese Internment Camp

 

The Town That Forgot About Its Japanese Internment Camp

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The Eatonville Roadhouse is a two-story stucco building—light blue, the color of a sky veiled with clouds pulled thin. It’s one of the few structures along the stretch of paved road that intersects my parents’ gravel path. Around it, the landscape is flat for miles; farmland unfurls in all directions. Wind turbines churn above soybean fields, rolling the sea of bushy plants.

I spent much of my childhood in this Canadian farming town cuddled up to the shore of Lake Erie. Over the course of almost two decades here, I tried to learn everything I could about the land and the 4,563 people who lived on it. I loved the old fishery, the annual buffalo festival; I liked to think that I held the place inside of me—that I’d learned to smell storms blowing in, heavy and slow, that I could feel the wind change direction.

Then, last winter, my dad mailed me a clipping from the Chatham Daily News, a local newspaper: “Japanese Canadians Want Property Preserved.” The story described a contentious city council meeting to decide the fate of the Roadhouse, which had slid into disuse and disrepair. The owners wanted to raze the structure, but somewhere along the line, it had been added to the local heritage registry; demolition couldn’t proceed without a sign-off from council.

Did you know, my dad penciled in the margin, that the building down the road had been a World War II-era work camp for Japanese men forced from Canada’s western coast?

I hadn’t known. I must have passed the building hundreds of times, and never detected a hint of its former life. According to the newspaper, most current residents seemed just as surprised. Some remembered that the building had once been a hotel, a speakeasy, and lodging for migrant laborers, but they didn’t recall this darker interlude. The internment story had largely faded, and now its physical traces threatened to vanish, too.