In the first months after the U.S. entered World War II, landowners in the Whitney Irrigation District sought assistance from soldiers based at Fort Robinson. Together the soldiers and local citizens made a valiant effort to prevent the failure of dams on Whitney Lake during a spring storm. Their success left George Lawrence, who served as secretary for the district for some time, believing that the outcome of the war would be a positive one for America if all of its soldiers were of the same caliber of those at Fort Robinson.
As the war continued, the irrigation district attempted to expand its relationship with the Army. Historical documents discovered at the district office this spring lay out a complicated tale of financial difficulties faced by the district and the board’s attempts to entice various federal agencies to consider Whitney as the location for federal projects that would have alleviated the financial concerns. After being turned down by the Farm Security Agency and the Bureau of Reclamation, the Whitney Irrigation District turned to the War Relocation Authority, offering to sell the lands in the entire district and the town of Whitney to the agency for use as a Japanese internment camp.
Lawrence’s history provides minute detail of the creation and construction of the district and its attempts to sway the Farm Security Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation. Nowhere, however, does it mention the steps the district took to sell off the region lock, stock and barrel to the War Relocation Authority. Instead, an August 1942 letter addressed to the agency’s offices in Denver and San Francisco discovered among the documents tells that story.
The letter is unsigned but carries lines for the president and secretary of the district to place their names.
It’s clear from the August letter that the discussion started several months earlier. Quotes in the letter refer to an April 28 communication from TL Holding, the district’s project manager, to the WRA letting the agency know the entire district could be purchased. The letter writer also indicates that the Farm Security Administration was willing to take over the district as a resettlement project and had assigned an engineer.
“In the meantime, the war has come on and doubtless the project is out for the duration,” the letter said in reference to the FSA program. Lawrence’s written history, however, makes it clear that while the Washington, D.C., FSA office approved such a project, the Lincoln office later terminated it without explanation.
With the idea that an FSA project was still feasible, but possibly delayed, the letter writer asked the War Relocation Authority to designate the Whitney Irrigation District as “an internment camp for Japanese subjects of the United States or other groups to be selected by the W.R.A.”
The district at the time included 9,500 acres and a storage reservoir with a capacity of 10,800 acre feet, providing sufficient water for the cultivation of 7,500 acres, the letter said.
“Still, the district is dying a slow death from lack of settlers, there being less than 30 farmers in the district.
“There has been some talk of the feasibility of selling the entire district to the War Relocation Authority as a site for interning west coast Japs for the duration. All of the land owners seemed favorable to the proposition, provided they were policed by the National Government, and Fort Robinson is only about twelve miles from the district on a paved highway,” the letter reads.
According to the writer, there were plenty of positives for both sides should the district be selected as an internment camp site.
The entire town of Whitney and the rural lands of the irrigation district were available for sale, the letter says. That included: “a two-story brick house, a one-story brick house, well built frame all enclosed lumber shed, a rectangular brick garage building, a two-story iron clad bank building with living quarters above, two –story frame store building with living quarters above, blacksmith shop, all with electricity or power available.” In addition, Whitney’s two-story schoolhouse was potentially available.
The 9,500 acres of crop and pasture land would also benefit from the War Relocation purchase, the letter writer noted.
“With their intensive cultivation, this land would support a great many more Japs than it would Americans. … The soil would be greatly benefited by the intensive work done by the Japs.”
The purchase of the land and town would alleviate the immediate financial concerns of the landowners, allow the FSA to continue its engineering studies and assure the WRA that another branch of the government would take over the land at the conclusion of World War II. The letter extolled the location’s convenience as well.
“The location in Dawes County seems ideal – Chadron to the east with plenty of houses available for families of guards and other personnel; Ft. Robinson to the west; Crawford at the cross roads of the Burlington and Northern railways, and on both highways #2 and #20, giving direct access to various reclamation projects in all directions, should the Authority be inclined to work their Japs on such projects as Mirage Flats (south of Hay Springs) and Angostura (near Hot Springs, So. Dak.) as well as others in the Platte Valley and in Wyoming.”
A WRA purchase would also release the landowners and their employees, enabling them to work elsewhere in the region and would solve the labor shortage in the irrigation district itself.
“We know that our farmers are being called into the service (army) and that our man power, always short, has been reduced, or will be reduced one half before the start of next year’s farming. Unless outside labor is brought in, our district is doomed.”
The district, it’s clear, was also in contact with elected officials on the subject of establishing an internment camp at Whitney. Congressman Harry Coffee is quoted in the letter as saying that the FSA provided him with little information about Whitney, but noted that a ruling by the Comptroller General likely precludes the purchase of the irrigation district by the FSA. Congressman Charles McLaughlin is also quoted, and his comments offered little hope to the district. His information indicated that the FSA had submitted a list of properties available as internment camps to the Army; Whitney was included on that list but wasn’t considered a favorable site. McLaughlin said there was still some question about the sufficiency of the water supply – a bone of contention the district had been dealing with for some time – and “for the reason that it has been the policy of the Army to place the Japanese where they will not mingle with Americans and that it is his understanding that the Japanese could not be entirely segregated from the Americans in the Whitney District.”
Col. Cress, deputy administrator for the WRA, told McLaughlin that the only place in Nebraska under serious consideration was near Cambridge. It’s likely the letter was written to sway the opinions of those in charge of making such decisions.
The district also turned to Sen. George Norris, who had proven influential at times with the FSA. Norris is quoted extensively in the letter to the WRA, though he appeared to be of the opinion that the internment camp should be located elsewhere.
“The War Department has these Japanese on its hands and will have to place them somewhere. I note you seem to approve the location of these Japanese in Nebraska,” Norris apparently said in a letter to TL Holding, the project manager for the district, which was then quoted in the letter to the WRA. “If the location is temporary and will last only the duration of the war, I do not think we ought to make any objection but I do think it would be a mistake if we put this fine irrigation district in their hands for permanent occupation.”
Norris continued: “I have an idea there will be a feeling among the white citizens that they do not want the Japanese and I confess I have a great deal of sympathy with any protest of that kind. Nevertheless, I realize that the Japanese have to be taken from the coast to some place where the danger of their Fifth Column activities would probably not interfere with the war progress. I would hate to see this project sold to the Japanese. I would not want them to get title to the land. In my judgment, it would be a mistake if they were located there permanently.”
Sen. Norris clearly hoped all internment camps would be located outside his home state, but said no one should object to such a camp in Nebraska – even at Whitney – if there was an agreement that after the war “they will be taken away ... You cannot mix the white people with the Japanese without getting into serious difficulty. Our people will not be content to live with the Japanese as neighbors and history shows that, when the Japanese get into a locality, if they are permitted to expand and other Japanese come in, perhaps after the war is over, there would be a Japanese settlement in which our citizens would not want to live.”
No other documents have been discovered that detail the effort to lobby the War Relocation Authority, but an internment camp at Whitney obviously never came to pass. Instead, the irrigation district struggled on without federal assistance.
An undated addition to Lawrence’s 1941 history reads, “Despite the optimistic belief so firmly expressed in the closing paragraphs of the foregoing history and which I had sincerely hoped to state in any subsequent writings had been accomplished, it is however, becoming increasingly evident at this time and throughout the passage of the three or more years which have elapsed since the writing of those lines that strong prejudices must be overcome in certain bureaucratic circles and the tax and physical structure of the district be adjusted, or rather adapted to meet with changing conditions and to endeavor to cause a change in the attitude of various governmental bureaus where these highly erroneous prejudices seem to exist.”
Lawrence cited the passing of Grant Spearman and William Hitchcock at such a critical stage as a contributing factor in the reversal of the “operative program of the district;” the resignation of C.F. Gund as secretary and treasurer added to the decline, as Gund had loaned the district $40,000 from his personal funds.
Other matters also contributed to the burden’s the district faced:
*The initial bond refinancing, while the right move at the time, did little to alleviate the difficulties the district faced, as it increased the annual tax levies for interest and maintenance purposes; a later refinancing proved more beneficial.
*A decrease in sugar beet acreage, the scarcity of competent labor and a Holly Sugar Company policy “which literally made our district a step child in so far as furnishing competent labor at the proper time” all added to the challenges. “Each succeeding year saw an appreciable loss of beet acreage and an increase in the various crops which require less hand labor and more of the mechanized type,” Lawrence wrote.
Lawrence expressed concern that the greater Whitney community and the local school district’s future continued to be tied to the success or failure of the irrigation district and vice versa.
“The finances of the Whitney school district followed the downward trend of the irrigation district with much the same result, warrants issued against taxes levied but not paid, outstanding warrants accumulating until the holders of unpaid warrants eventually forced the abandonment of the accredited school program and the high school grades leaving an eight grade school. This of course has also proven highly detrimental to the community and of course our irrigation district.
“Whenever the supporting families leave a community it must necessarily cause a retrogression of the local business interests with the consequent loss of one after another of these interests until the economic balance necessary to maintain the town and community with a corresponding lack of interest in both school and irrigation districts until both show a loss of physical and human assets. The nationwide trend toward the abandonment of small towns must however, necessarily be included as a contributing factor as must also the general agricultural depression, which for several years has been accompanied by virtually a total loss of crops due to grasshopper infestation,” Lawrence wrote.
“In a radio talk recently, one of our more noted economists stated that only by a concerted effort of the entire community involved could the life of many small towns be saved. He stated that it is a lack of a realization of just what a community would be like without local facilities of trade and it is an accepted fact that a successive abandonment of a number of small towns in an area is definitely followed by the abandonment of rail facilities and its accompanying loss of resident operating personnel.”
Despite the hardships, Lawrence remained optimistic that the challenges would make the Whitney Irrigation District stronger in the end.
In a still later addition to the history – possibly done around 1950 – Lawrence had come to believe the denial by federal agencies was a blessing in disguise. Any government program, he noted, would have “led us into a strictly regimented program and a consequent departure from our ‘American Way of Life.’”
By that update, the district had no outstanding accounts and all payments were current. A new generation of farmers was harvesting larger acreages of crops and the district was advancing, Lawrence said, finally bringing the dreams of those who came before them to fruition. It was fortunate those early pioneers did not know what was in store for them, Lawrence said.
“Similarly if these men had foreseen and had been forced to face the many trials, obstacles and reverses that were subsequently encountered and that ultimately they would not be here to reap the benefits of their labors, undoubtedly their courage would have failed them, with the consequent almost immediate disintegration of the development until that time, so long before its ultimate and successful future was accomplished.”
At this writing, practically all of the land which had been taken over by the district via the tax foreclosure route has been sold to operators who are developing it, and with its consequent return to the tax rolls, land values have advanced rapidly, but are still not comparable with values of land in similar districts. We are confident however that with the very substantial increase in our intensive crop acreages that values will continue their advance in this area.”
The older generation, the pioneers of our district, has in nearly all cases been replaced by a younger generation which we feel and hope will continue the development of the district, possibly add to it and bring it to an even greater future than was envisaged by our pioneers and in doing so may have a greater sense of contentment than was accorded to the older generation throughout much of the previous period,” he wrote.
Today, the Whitney Irrigation District serves 40 patrons, and 7,139.5 acres of land are “under ditch” and have water available April 15 to Oct. 1 for irrigation purposes. A $14 per acre operation and maintenance rate provides patrons with one foot of water per acre unless the lake does not reach its capacity – approximately 10,000 acre feet. The irrigation district is divided into three sub-districts, each represented by an elected member to the board of directors, all of whom serve three-year terms.
Perhaps John Neale, an early investor in the Whitney Irrigation District, summed it up best in a letter he wrote when the project began, and which Lawrence quoted:
“Long after those of us who had a part in it have gone from this present scene, rains and snows shall fall upon the watershed of the White River; shall flow down that stream course to the diversion point which leads to your reservoir and shall there be stored up for the use of many succeeding generations, being thus transformed into life and living and affording greater opportunity for those who use it and profit thereby even though they know not the hands nor the hearts that were initially back of the improvement which made such changed conditions possible. Monuments out in a cemetery do not mean much to strangers, but service for the good of the human race will continue to stand forth and shall so continue, with reverent appreciation so long as the intelligence and character of free men survive upon this earth.”