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Rainy Lake island cabin an artifact of the opening of northeastern Minnesota to tourism and recreation

The rustic cabin was built by Jun Fujita, one of the first prominent Japanese Americans in the Midwest.

Jun Fujita’s cabin on Rainy Lake in St. Louis County, Minnesota.
Jun Fujita’s cabin on Rainy Lake in St. Louis County, Minnesota.
Photograph by A. Wallace for the National Park Service

Jun Fujita was born near Hiroshima, Japan, in 1888. He emigrated to Canada as a teenager and worked there as a photographer. By 1915, when US law still allowed immigration by certain Asian groups, he arrived in Chicago, where he spent the rest of his life.

Fujita became an accomplished newspaper photographer for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Evening Post in the 1910s and 1920s. He took now-famous photographs documenting the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (a Chicago gangland shooting in 1929); the 1915 capsizing of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River, in which 844 people drowned; and racial violence in Chicago in 1919. He photographed prominent people such as Al Capone, Albert Einstein, and Frank Lloyd Wright. His photographs of flowers are in the collections of several museums. In addition to these accomplishments, Fujita also was a published poet who, while writing in English, used a Japanese style known as tanka.

In the 1920s, Fujita met Florence Carr. They lived together until he died in 1963, having married in 1940.

In 1928, Carr purchased a four-acre island in Rainy Lake, a 360-square-mile lake that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border, about thirty-five miles east of International Falls, Minnesota. At various times, the island has been known as Japanese Island* and Wendt Island. Although Carr seldom visited the island after the cabin was constructed, it remained in her name. At the time, Minnesota law limited the ownership of land by persons who were not U.S. citizens and who had not declared their intention to seek citizenship. (Fujita became a U.S. citizen in 1954 through a private act of Congress.)

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Soon after Carr bought the island, Fujita built his cabin: a single room thirteen by sixteen feet in size framed with cedar poles. The exterior of the wooden siding was originally mustard yellow in color but was eventually painted green, possibly by a later owner. The interior was not painted. Japanese design elements are evident throughout, from the moderate pitch of the roof and the integration of the cabin into the landscape to the emphasis on the outside view. The wooden floor was tongue and groove, and multiple windows provided a connection to the outside. A chimney was constructed out of native rubble by a local tradesman. Fujita later added a screen porch and a seven-by-eight-foot addition. Both the porch and the addition were made of logs.

In the 1930s, Fujita visited the island each summer. After he left his newspaper job and started a commercial photography business, one of his clients was a company that made outboard motors, and he photographed its motors near his cabin. Later, conservationists seeking to prevent the construction of additional dams in the area used his photographs to demonstrate its natural beauty.

Fujita is not known to have visited the island after Japan and the United States went to war in 1941. He allowed Fred and Edythe Sackett, who owned a nearby island, to use the cabin, and they purchased it in 1956. In 1973, the Sacketts sold the island to Charles and Mary Jane Wendt. The island is within the boundaries of Voyageurs National Park, which was formed in 1975. The National Park Service (NPS) bought the island in 1985, but the Wendts leased the island for a time. As of 2022, the NPS has complete ownership rights.

In 1996, Fujita’s cabin was added to the National Register of Historic Places. According to the registration form, the cabin is the only extant example in Voyageurs National Park of recreational cabins built in the early days of tourism in the Rainy Lake area. In 2021, the National Park Service returned the cabin to its 1920s appearance by removing a non-historic outbuilding and a 1980s extension to the cabin and by performing preservation work. As of 2022 the cabin is locked, but members of the public are free to walk on the island.

*Editor’s note: The island’s unofficial name in the mid-twentieth century used an abbreviated form of “Japanese.” MNopedia has inserted the full word in its place. The abbreviated form was, and remains, a racist slur harmful to people of Japanese ancestry.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.