Editor's note: This article originally appeared in our latest Generations magazine. Additional photos that go with this story, as well as more great stories like this one, are available to read online HERE, or check local newsstands for a free hard copy of Generations.
It’s a particularly sorry aspect of America’s World War II history: Within 48 hours after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the U.S. government quietly began rounding up thousands of Japanese-American citizens who were living on the West Coast, forcibly relocating them to 10 designated “relocation centers.”
Those centers later came to be recognized for what they really were — internment camps.
During the spring and summer of 1942, about 110,000 Japanese-American men, women and children came to be housed in these camps, after being ordered by the U.S. Army to evacuate the Pacific Coast area.
The War Relocation Authority (WRA) was the United States government agency established to handle this mass relocation — and it was the WRA that brought about 16 of these Japanese-Americans to Detroit Lakes to work at the Edgewater Beach Resort Hotel during the summer of 1943.
This “experimental project” by the WRA has been nearly forgotten over the years, becoming an often-overlooked footnote in Detroit Lakes’ history. At the time, however, it created tension and controversy in the community, with anti-Japanese protesters lashing out against the resort’s owners.
In an Aug. 8, 1943 article that appeared in both the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, Associated Press writer Jack MacKay reported that the workers’ placement at the Detroit Lakes hotel was “a sort of experimental project … but the experiment is working out so successfully that (the regional WRA office in Fargo) has been swamped with calls for similar assistance by Minnesota and North Dakota farmers, and others who have heard about it.”
Through the efforts of Fargo WRA officer Elmer Isaksen, several more Japanese-Americans were placed at farms along the Red River Valley where workers were requested.
According to Detroit Lakes native Fred Wright, whose father, Frederick Holmes Wright, owned the Edgewater at that time, the hotel was just one of many area businesses hurting for manpower due to the fact that a majority of able-bodied men were serving in the war.
A quote from Isaksen in the 1943 article bears this out: “We have just submitted a number of job offers from North Dakota cafe and restaurant operators, garage owners, ranchers and poultry farmers for help,” he said. “In all of these cases the employers are extremely anxious to get these American-Japanese workers, having heard of the Edgewater Beach project and from farmers in the Red River Valley where many already are placed.”
Wright’s father was also quoted in the article, stating, “These men are excellent workers, loyal to our government, and doing their part in helping to solve the labor problem. They are paid the prevailing wage and apparently they are happy to be out of the relocation centers.”
“Dad was a true pioneer on this (using Japanese-American workers),” Wright said. “But there was a downside.”
The war had created so much anti-Japanese sentiment, he explained, that protesters actually burned crosses on the lawn of the Wrights’ home on Lincoln Avenue (they later relocated to a house on Summit Avenue, which he still owns).
In a special Minneapolis Sunday Tribune publication from 1979, several Japanese-Americans who were relocated to Minnesota during World War II were interviewed. One of them, Bob Hosokawa, said it was difficult for “people today (i.e., 1979)” to know the fear and suspicion about Japanese-Americans that existed on the West Coast (and elsewhere) after the war broke out.
“The FBI swept through the community and arrested various people suspected of being alien leaders,” he stated. “If you got certain magazines, you could be arrested. There was great anxiety among the older Japanese. I remember mother sitting by the kitchen stove, throwing in letters and pictures she’d received over the years from her family because she didn’t want to be suspected of being a foreign agent.”
Though he wasn’t as personally affected by the relocation as others, Hosokawa said, his greatest fear was that the loss of freedom would happen again.
“Americans have to be aware there was this chapter in our history,” he said. “In wartime, there could be enough hysteria by special groups to bring this about. I think there is always a threat to freedom. People who are strong are going to seize power from those not strong enough to defend themselves.”
May Tanaka, another Japanese-American interviewed for the Sunday Tribune piece, said, “this should not happen to anyone who is an American citizen. It is an injustice. It was not right to intern people who were American citizens.”
According to the 1943 MacKay article, nearly all of those Japanese-American workers placed in the northern Minnesota-North Dakota area by the WRA came from the relocation center at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
In order to be able to qualify for “indefinite leave” from the relocation centers, each worker had to be “investigated with regard to his loyalty and background,” stated Isaksen.
Some of the workers who were interviewed for the article (anonymously) said they hoped to return to their homes in California, but others said they were fearful their original jobs would be closed to them after the war, and were looking for a fresh start somewhere else.
“Placement of evacuees at the Edgewater Beach Hotel and on farms in the Red River Valley is apparently working out very satisfactorily,” Isaksen said in the article.
One tidbit that Wright learned from his parents about the Japanese-Americans working at the Edgewater that year, he added, is that many of them had played in a band at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii, before they were relocated by the government.
“After their shifts at the Edgewater were over, they would put on shows for the guests,” he said.
The Edgewater was Detroit Lakes’ first luxury resort hotel. Frederick and Marie Wright purchased lake frontage at the edge of town in 1933 to build the family-oriented resort, and by 1936, they had opened a two-story, rustic-style chateau with a recreation room and four bedrooms. The following fall, five cottages with steam heat were available for rent; three more were added the next year. Only two of the cottages remain standing today.
According to Fred Wright, part of the charm of the Edgewater Beach cottages comes from the construction method used to build them — the only known example of pioneer stovewood construction in Minnesota. In this energy-efficient design, walls were built of logs sawn into short sections and stacked with their cut ends facing out. This form of architecture is more typical of northeastern Wisconsin than Minnesota, according to information provided by the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS).
“The logs were mostly tamarack and pine,” Wright said, with mortar in between.
George Jewel was the carpenter, according to MHS. In 1989, the remaining Edgewater Beach cottages were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wright was interviewed about his family’s memories of the Edgewater, including the Japanese-Americans’ time there, in a 2019 documentary video commissioned by the Lake Detroiters Association for its 50th anniversary celebration, titled “What a Beautiful Detroit.” The video is currently available for purchase, in DVD form, from the Becker County Museum in Detroit Lakes.