When John Hopper, dean of students for the Granada School District, began teaching his history students about Camp Amache in the early 1990s, the site was a sage-brush strewn prairie dotted with concrete foundations.

Now, after Hopper and his students spent decades preserving the former Japanese American internment camp from World War II, advocating for it, creating the Amache Preservation Society, establishing a museum and building the trust of the Japanese American community — Camp Amache is a national historic site. President Joe Biden signed the measure into law last week.

“My gosh, my phone has been blowing up,” Hopper said in a video chat Tuesday. “We finally did it.”

The town gave back to the Japanese American community by helping push for the national recognition, and the Japanese American community helped the town and high school students embrace the legacy that forever defines the town.

Tanner Grasmick, 27, became a teacher because he was inspired by Hopper and appreciated the lessons from Amache. After graduating from Colorado State University-Pueblo, he returned to Granada to become a social studies teacher. 

“We were shocked it finally happened. It’s been so many years in the making and we’ve been talking about it for so long,” Grasmick said. “All the hard work from Mr. Hopper, and all of us, is finally paying off.”

More than 7,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, nearly all from Southern California, were imprisoned at the camp from 1942 to 1945 under an executive order issued by President Franklin Roosevelt after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thirty-two died at the camp.

Through the war, the federal government forcibly relocated 120,000 Japanese Americans — more than two-thirds of whom were American citizens — from the West Coast to 10 camps across six states, including the Granada War Relocation Center, the Colorado camp's formal name.

So the town has been inexorably linked to Camp Amache for more than 80 years. In the last 30 years, largely through the efforts of Hopper and his students, the town embraced the dark chapter of American history and tried to shine the light of its lessons to future generations.

“There was some trust issues at first, both with the Granada community and the Japanese American community,” Hopper said. “But as soon as they figured out what we were doing, there just became a landslide of people coming.”

The town of about 500 people in southeast Colorado is about a four-hour drive from Denver. Granada High School has 10 to 20 graduates each year, and the school has about 60 students total.

“It’s definitely a tight-knit community,” said Grasmick. “We went to state in basketball last week, and it felt like half the town drove to Greeley to root us on. You can’t go one block without seeing someone you know.”

It started when students began asking about Amache after years of playing in and around it. As a history teacher, Hopper felt compelled to give them answers. Next came the scale model he, another teacher and students built of the camp when it was fully operational.

“That really got the ball rolling,” said Grasmick, whose older brother helped build it. “You just heard bits and pieces when we were growing up. And the students would always ask, ‘Are you going to take Amache this year?’ after it became a class.”

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Hopper’s family knew a Japanese American family who stayed in the area after the camp closed, so it was personal for him as well.

They started gathering historical artifacts for what would eventually become a museum. They worked to preserve the former camp by caring for the grounds as much as possible. They created the Amache Preservation Society. They located the original water tower and acquired it from the landowner. They refurbished a guard tower, barracks and built a replica of an honor role kiosk used to recognize Japanese American military volunteers.

“Now the students won’t have to do it, after the feds take over,” Hopper said. “We were getting over-stretched. … My head is on a swivel when we’re out there — I mean trying to watch 12-14 kids when there’s rattlesnakes around and something could happen. There were some near misses!”

Then the pilgrimages started. Busloads of people would drive from all over the state, and Kansas and Oklahoma, to tour the site. The town would welcome each one and join together to break bread at a potluck dinner. Students began to cherish the conversations and interactions, Grasmick said.

“The people I have met through Amache are so kind and grateful. It makes it all worthwhile,” Grasmick said. “They’re so supportive of all we do.”

All the while, students documented survivors’ stories with audio or video tape. They wove the stories into a poignant history lesson they took on the road, traveling far and wide at least six to eight times a year. Students polished their public speaking skills by presenting to hundreds at a time — something not possible in their small town and high school.

“We wanted to spread awareness — not just locally,” said Grasmick. “It’s nerve-wracking talking to a class of 150 or more, but it really pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me grow.”

After the 1998 reunion, things really started moving toward national recognition, Hopper said.

“I told them we work for you, and if that’s what you all want we’ll help,” Hopper said. “They really wanted to push for this.”

Sponsored by U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse and Ken Buck and U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, the Amache National Historic Site Act designates Camp Amache, on 600 acres about a mile outside Granada in Prowers County, as a national historic site. The bill passed both chambers of Congress unanimously last month.

“I think this is going to be good for the town and good for Prowers County,” Hopper said. “People have to eat, buy gas and stay at hotels. It’s going to bring in more money from an economic standpoint and likely raise property values. It’s a huge plus to Holly, Lamar and Granada.”

When Hopper got the news last week, a Hickenlooper staff member said if he could gather some students to the phone, the president might speak to them briefly from the signing.

“I had 10 minutes to make that happen,” Hopper said. “I was driving all over Granada trying to find some students, but they were all gone because of spring break.”

Thanks to their work, though, Camp Amache and the somber lessons it teaches will never be gone.