• Vintage photo f a guy inside a car, a child sticking his head out of the window and another in the back seat

      Bob with cousins David and Betty, July 1953 (Photo – Bellefontaine Nursery)

      Any small business owner will share with you the immense challenges of running a store or providing a service, particularly over many years of operation.

      By Brian Biery

      Recessions, inflation, supply chain slowdowns, material shortages, worn-out equipment, increases in rent–all of these are just a few of the hurdles that independent operators must overcome in order to survive. The majority of them, though, will not have to navigate the terrain that Kuniyoshi and Sayo Uchida did shortly after founding the Bellefontaine Nursery.

      Still located at its original site of 838 S. Fair Oaks Ave., this family owned and operated business has served the community since 1939.  Within three years of its establishment, however, the nursery would be shuttered temporarily during World War II, from 1942 to 1945.  Soon after the U.S. entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans (many of whom were citizens) living in western states were rounded up, their homes abandoned and businesses closed as they were sent to concentration camps around the country.  The Uchida family was sent to the Gila River internment camp in Arizona where they would live out the war years.

      The WW II experience was one that was fraught with controversy and contradiction.  While at the Gila River internment camp the Uchida’s fifth son, Joe, graduated from high school.  Subsequently, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in August of 1945 and served in the U.S. military during the winding down and clean-up of the war.  Upon completion of his service, Joe enrolled at USC and earned a degree in business which he used to help guide the nursery for over 50 years.

      After the war ended, many Japanese American families were forced to start their lives over with very few resources, as most of their material possessions were lost or sold during their imprisonment.  The Uchida family, however, was extremely fortunate.  Friends and neighbors protected the nursery’s property, which enabled Kuniyoshi and Sayo to restart the business after they were released from Gila River.

      Vintage photo of brothers standing in front of business

      Uchida brothers (clockwise from upper left) Bob, Mike, Joe and Gus (Photo – Bellefontaine Nursery)

      In the postwar era in Pasadena, there were many other Japanese families who returned from internment camps and service in the U.S. military.  Finding employment opportunities limited for Japanese Americans, many became gardeners and landscapers.  Bellefontaine Nursery served as a home base for these local entrepreneurs by providing not only the plants and garden supplies needed for the ornamental gardens around the city, but also providing a social gathering place for Japanese American gardeners.  Even Kuniyoshi Uchida added neighbors` yards to his gardening client list.  He would often ride his bike with a push mower tied to the back to cut lawns in the neighborhood in the evening after working at the nursery all day.

      That work ethic persists today as, over 80 years after its founding, the nursery continues to serve the Pasadena community at its original site.  A fecund and fragrant oasis in the middle of the Fair Oaks biomedical corridor, Bellefontaine Nursery features a variety of popular plants and valuable resources for novice and expert gardeners alike.  In this age of dwindling water resources, the nursery offers a wide variety of native, drought-resistant plants, succulents and organic fertilizers that produce beautiful ground covering for any yard or patio.

      Cousins Alan and Dale Uchida continue to steer the nursery and share their family’s plant knowledge daily with everyone.  The goals of the nursery are to provide quality service, offer high-quality plants at a reasonable price and be ‘green’ in the process.  These concepts are very much in alignment with Grandpa Kuniyoshi’s original vision.  He certainly would be amazed to see how many lives the nursery has affected over the decades.  As he once said, “Success would be measured in smaller ways that I could ever imagine.”

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