Japanese immigrant Kuniyoshi Uchida arrived in San Francisco with a friend to work on the railroads in 1905. His friend, Nitsuke Mitsumori, introduced his sister Sayo to Kuniyoshi and they were married in 1912. They had six children over the next two decades: daughters Michiko (who died in 1914 at age 7) and Setsuko, and sons Makoto (Mike), Katsuhito (Gus), Akira (Joe) and Teruo (Robert).
My Issei (first generation) grandparents, Kuniyoshi and Sayo Uchida, founded Bellefontaine Nursery at its present location in 1939. Their five children all took part in the business as they went to college or held clerical jobs on the side. When the U.S. entered World War II, all persons of Japanese ancestry (west of the Rockies) were relocated to internment camps within five months. The Uchida family was sent to the Gila River internment camp in Arizona. Fortunately, with the help of watchful friends, the Uchida family was able to retain their nursery which was closed from 1942 to 1945.
The Uchidas were happy to return to the Pasadena nursery business in December of 1945, but the postwar economy was challenging. My grandfather took gardening jobs nearby to help support the nursery. I am told Grandfather rode his bicycle from job to job with a push lawnmower latched to the back. They started plants from cuttings or seeds in real wooden flats or tarred egg cans, a method I remember watching as a child. They grew roses, azaleas, and boxwood. Putting in long hours from 6:30 in the morning to 6:30 or 7:00 at night, my dad and uncles labored to make a living. Success would be measured in smaller ways than I could ever imagine. My grandfather made sure everyone went to church (Presbyterian) every Sunday and managed to do this until nearly the day he died.
My dad, Joe, graduated USC in 1950 and was happy to rejoin the nursery. Joe married Agnes Mizuho Ashizawa in 1952. Along with Mike, who married Mary Shinmoto and Gus who married Mitsuko Miyamoto, the nursery became more retail oriented. Things became lively as everyone married and started having kids.
My aunt Setsuko married Frank Yamada from Milpitas and they had three children, Betty, David, and Sharon. Uncle Frank started a lawnmower shop at the nursery that lasted from 1950 until 1995. He was a hardworking mechanic who prospered as Bellefontaine Nursery grew into a resource Japanese gardeners could rely on for their equipment repairs and -- more importantly -- as a place to congregate between jobs.
Mike and Mary would have three children, all girls: Lu Ann, Patti, and Carol. Gus and Mitsuko would have three boys, Mark, Glenn, and Dale. My uncle Bob, the youngest of the family, went to Grinnell College, Cal Berkeley and USC and became an educator at Eagle Rock High. He married Mae Kosobayashi in 1960 and, although was not a full time partner, helped the older brothers on the weekends and during long hot summers. Bob and Mae would later have twin girls, Kathy and Peggy.
I was born Alan Joe Uchida in 1953, with siblings Craig Denis (1955) and sister NaomiLynn (1957). Craig resides in Washington D.C. with two daughters, Maria Akemi Uchida and Jennifer Mizuho Uchida. Naomi and her daughter Melinda Mariko reside in Riverside. My sister Naomi Foley currently helps us with bookeeping on the weekends. My nieces are “hapa” or mixed, Italian and Irish. They have all graduated college and are working for hospitals, advertising firms and museums.
The nursery had a core support group of Japanese gardeners that would continue for nearly 50 years. They came to the store for supplies and to order “weed and feed” delivery for dichondra lawns, a fad that seemed to last two decades. Field Grown Pansies, ranunculus and daffodils (bulbs) and my favorite, tulips, sold by the hundreds! Bare root roses are a tradition in Pasadena and we are currently the “only nursery in the city” that provides this service.
My parents, Joe and Agnes started landscaping in the 1970s when nurseries were booming! We moved into the two story wood frame house at the nursery (relocated in 1991 to a historical neighborhood in Pasadena) to help my grandfather and watch over the grounds. Everybody was spending money to make their yards look great! This boom continued through the mid 70s, and Bellefontaine Nursery participated in Pasadena Showcase and L.A. Arboretum shows. I started work at the nursery after graduating Cal-State Long Beach in 1976.
My apprenticeship lasted years as my dad and two uncles worked hard to keep the business strong and independent. My cousin Dale R. Uchida (son of Gus) entered the business in the 1980s and is my partner in the business today.
The past ten years have been both challenging and rewarding. We are fortunate to have close friends and family who dedicate long hours to make our events successful. These supporters are constantly working on improving the business and finding new resources to keep the nursery interesting and innovative.
The nursery is our tradition we hope will also carry on in your family as well... to keep your garden as healthy, flourishing and expressive as the art form it can be. Our goals at the nursery are to give quality personal service, exceptional plant material at reasonable prices, and to continue to be as “green as possible” in operating. This isn't too far from our grandfather’s policy over seventy years ago! I know that he would be proud to see all the people that attend our garden talks and dedicated gardening people that enter the gates weekly. And he would be truly amazed to see all the young gardeners who are now a part of our clientele.
We hope this gives you a little family history of the Uchida family and Bellefontaine Nursery. Come visit us soon!
Alan J. Uchida
Partner, Bellefontaine Nursery