Plans being made for Topaz museum in Delta

Plans being made for Topaz museum in Delta

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DELTA, Utah (AP) -- A broken teacup handle. A splintered garden box. A cracked concrete slab that, long ago, served as a mess hall for an imprisoned community so large that it would have ranked as Utah's fifth most-populous city.

These are among the scattered memories that awaited Camellia Davis on a sun-scorched greasewood flat -- about 15 miles outside Delta -- where her father spent three years of his childhood behind barbed wire in the Topaz internment camp.

It was a pilgrimage, of sorts, for this Illinois mother of four, who desperately wanted to understand her father's bitterness more than 60 years after the United States, shaken by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, ordered the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese descendants.

"I was just driven," she says. "I had to see it."

But the tale of Topaz is easily overlooked in this west desert town -- a reality that historians hope to remedy soon. Momentum is building for a stand-alone museum in downtown Delta to chronicle the Topaz confinement.

Until then, the story of this sprawling prison camp, which once housed up to 11,000 people and raised constitutional questions about the wartime rights of U.S. citizens, will be retold in a single cramped corner of Delta's Great Basin Museum.

While potbellied stoves, military-style metal bunks and even a crib carved with the identification number 11880 are displayed in a Topaz-era recreation hall behind the museum, historians have no place for dozens of other artifacts, ranging from Japanese ink wells to watercolor paintings to brooches decorated with shells from the desert floor.

Jane Beckwith, president of the Topaz Museum Board, retrieves several boxes of flower-petal pins and bird carvings from the bedside of her Delta home -- ornate reminders of the history she has pushed for more than two decades to preserve. Those trinkets, she says, should have a permanent home.

And soon, they might.

Museum backers have laid plans -- and even purchased property -- for a 27,000-square-foot historical complex in Delta that would offer expansive exhibit space not only for the Topaz story, but also for the Great Basin Museum and Daughters of Utah Pioneers. Designs for the nearly $5 million building also call for a community meeting hall and office space for the Delta Chamber of Commerce.

It's a high-dollar endeavor that Delta Mayor Gayle Bunker says is in "a very good position" to succeed.

Not only has the federal government recognized the Topaz internment camp as a National Historic Landmark, but the Utah Legislature also passed a resolution this year supporting a museum that would preserve that heritage. The National Park Service extended another helping hand in late July with a $48,000 Japanese-American Confinement Site Grant to hire an exhibit designer.

Years from now, Beckwith hopes the museum will remind visitors about a tragic chapter in U.S. history that, hopefully, the nation never will repeat.

"I want people to see that through inaction, through fear and through prejudice, horrific things can happen if no one does anything to say no," Beckwith says. "I want people to know that, in a democracy, we have the responsibility to protect those who are not quite as strong as the majority."

As for a build date? Beckwith chuckles. "We wanted it done 20 years ago."

But for now, there are only a tiny museum and a cracked desert floor to revive those memories for people such as Davis, who stood with her husband and four children among the weathered remains of her father's unwanted home: Block 6.

"Could you live here for 3 1/2 years?" she asks her children, who shake their heads.

She hopes her children won't forget that story of her father -- the heart-rending tale of a boy whose friends turned against him and whose country forced his family from their homes during World War II.

She hopes the world won't forget what it did to people like her grandparents who had to forsake their family dry-cleaning business, abandon a cat at the garbage with only a can of sardines and, ultimately, suffer the loss of all of their belongings in a mysterious barn fire during their imprisonment.

"We can all heal and move forward," she says. "But we need to be educated, all of us, to avoid having this mistake happen again. It would be an even greater tragedy if we learned nothing from this -- that sometime in the next century we did it again because we were afraid."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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