Japanese in Whitefish – Part 2

By Jill Evans, Administrator of the Stumptown Historical Society

There were dormitories for the “Jap boys” who worked on the railroad. In 1919 some of these “Jap boys” bought a tract of land south of the railroad roundhouse. There was a large building on the land, which they converted into a dormitory.

Later Japanese families built several homes here, and it became the center of a Japanese community. Before World War II a Japanese dormitory was maintained for Oriental contractors and laborers where Duff’s Chevrolet used car lot is today, and there were often as many as seventy single, male, Japanese railroad laborers housed there in bachelor rooms without baths. At this same time, four Japanese families were living in the houses south of the roundhouse.

In July, 1941, the Japanese dormitory was the scene of a murder that was at least partially responsible for razing of the building the following November. S. (Toto) Takahashi, roundhouse boss, was shot five time on July 23, 1941, by H. (Sam) Kimura. Takahashi had been in Whitefish for ten years, was married to but separated from a white wife living in Havre. Kimura was quiet, reserved, but there had been bad feeling between him and his boss, Takahashi, for some time. Sympathy seemed to lie with Kimura. He readily admitted the murder and was found guilty of second degree murder, given twenty yars in the state penitentiary. Takahashi’s wife appeared in Whitefish to attend the funeral and claim his estate. In this she was refused. When the matter was taken to court, the verdict was that since interracial marriage was illegal in Montana, her marriage was not valid, and the only heirs were Takahashi’s father and family in Japan.

Japanese boys whitefish history

Japanese snow gang at triple divide, BN Wood Coach ca, 1920’s

After the war, and no doubt as a result of the war, this kind of situation swiftly changed. In the early 50’s one of the most attractive and popular girls in Whitefish High School, Peggy Spink, who was white, fell in love with and insisted on being married to Heloshi Kusomoto, who was Japanese. Interracial marriage was still illegal in Montana. Teachers and parents pointed out obstacles to the marriage, but were over-ruled. The young people were married in Coeurd’Alene, Idaho, about 1950, and eventually earned the respect of their home town, even though they chose not to live in it. Today they live in Kailui, Hawaii, where Kusomoto is GS13 and second in-command in the Bureau of Public Roads.

When the United States entered World War II, the Suga family published the following notice in the Pilot of December 19, 1941:

“To All Our Good Friends:

“The thing that Japanese-American citizens have feared has come unexpectedly and swiftly, and the time has arrived for us Japanese Americans to show our loyalty which we have professed so long.

We want all of our American friends and neighbors to know that ‘we shall serve the United States of America, Our Country, the Country we love, to the best of our ability’. “Lena Suga, Ben Suga, Don Suga”

At the same time Tom Hatsukano, age 19, enlisted and left for Missoula. Ted Kusumoto and Ben Suga were already in the army.

All enemy aliens were required to turn in radios, cameras, and guns by January, 1942, but no Whitefish Japanese were sent to camps, as their compatriots were in California. For a time in February, 1942, it seemed a camp for coastal Japanese might be established in the Flathead, but it never was. The Great Northern discontinued its policy of hiring Japanese laborers in Montana, but once during a wartime emergency it brought thirty American-born Japanese to Flathead County, with the consent of Kalispell and Whitefish officials, to shovel snow at Essex. They made clear that these workmen were under guard at all times and would be replaced with white labor as soon as possible.

See more of their story in the Whitefish museum, located in the Train Depot.

Note: The quoted material is taken from Stump Town to Ski Town, by Betty Schafer and Mable Engelter, written in 1972 and reprinted by the Stumptown Historical Society in 2003. It is available for sale in the Whitefish Museum located in the Train Depot.

CuratorJapanese in Whitefish – Part 2