Manzanar NHS: Merritt Park Archeological Dig: July 21-August 1; August 30-September 2, 2008

Editor’s Note: The following is a press release from the National Park Service.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go back and visit a childhood home? What if that home was a wartime camp behind barbed wire? What if your reason for going back was an archeological excavation of a garden your father built?

This was the experience of the Nishi family on a breezy Saturday in May as they returned to an old family home. Three generations traveled from Los Angeles to Manzanar National Historic Site to participate in the Merritt Park Archeological Dig. The goal of the excavation is to uncover and stabilize rock gardens and features of this centerpiece of community life at Manzanar. The project, which teams park archeologists and staff with volunteers, continues July 21 to August 1, and August 30 to September 2, 2008.

After Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan on December 7, 1941, Kuichiro Nishi—a 56 year-old nursery owner and garden designer in West Los Angeles—was arrested by the FBI and sent to a prison camp at Fort Missoula, Montana. In the spring of 1942, his wife and children were forced to leave their home and move to Manzanar, as were thousands of other Japanese Americans living on the west coast. Mr. Nishi was released from detention and rejoined his family at Manzanar in June, 1942.

The U.S. Army designed Manzanar as an efficient military-style camp in the Eastern California desert. The internees, however, made many improvements that transformed the monotonous conformity of camp into a community—including beautifying the landscape. Mr. Nishi used his experience as a nursery owner to make the desert bloom. Within two months of arriving at Manzanar, he participated in the construction of a garden with pools and a fountain in Block 22.

Eventually Mr. Nishi convinced camp director Ralph Merritt to donate supplies and equipment for the community garden that later became known as Merritt Park (historic photo of Merritt Park above by Ansel Adams). With its visually striking rock gardens, ponds, rustic bridge, gazebo, and diverse plantings—including roses that Nishi cultivated—the park became a sanctuary of tranquility for the Manzanar community. Couples were married in the park which provided an attractive escape from the drudgery of camp life. Today, home movies still bear witness to its peaceful beauty.

After Manzanar closed in 1945 and the Nishi family returned to Los Angeles to rebuild their lives, their temporary home at Manzanar returned to the desert. As years went by, spring run-off from the Sierra Nevada snowpack periodically flooded the site, burying the camp’s gardens with silt and sand. Many clues in the landscape were rendered invisible under layers of dirt.

Today, through a National Park Service Vanishing Treasures grant, park archeologists are excavating and stabilizing Merritt Park. Volunteers are invited to join the project—clearing brush, digging out the sediment to reveal the rock features, and restoring the rock and cement work based on photo documentation. One worker even found a child’s toy metal dumptruck embedded in the dirt.

The Nishi family responded to the call for volunteers, seeing an opportunity to revisit their wartime home in Manzanar. On this breezy spring day, three of Kuichiro Nishi’s children—Henry, Edith, and Barbara—returned with children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. They came to haul brush and shovel dirt, to socialize and tell stories about their father and life in camp, and to be a part of restoring what was once their home. An odd and unfortunate home to be sure, but nonetheless part of the family heritage of a generation of Japanese Americans.

Anyone age 15 and over who is physically able to work outdoors in moderately strenuous activity is invited to volunteer for the Merritt Park Archeological Dig. Previous archeological experience is helpful, but not necessary. All that’s needed is an interest in history and a willingness to get dirty. Work will take place Monday, July 21, through Friday, August 1, and Saturday, August 30, through Tuesday, September 2, from 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM each day. The work will be conducted outdoors regardless of weather.

For more information about volunteering for the Merritt Park Archeological Dig, please call Park Guide Gretel Enck at (760) 878-2194, ext. 2713, or e-mail at

— NPS —

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