"Things haven't been that good in the nursery industry in general," said Russ Satake, the final operator of a family business that was itself among a dwindling list of small independent growers.
It wasn't long ago that a "nursery row" thrived in Sunnyvale where homeowners, who once had more time for gardening, could find small retailers selling high-quality plants. These days, plants from mega-stores like Home Depot are often out of season or rushed out of a high-volume nursery. The plants fail at a higher rate, which may have turned off customers from growing flowers.
"To take something from the greenhouse — it's very tricky," explained Russ' father, James Satake, 83. "If done improperly, it will get burned."
The Satakes mastered their trade over several decades, and had to overcome many obstacles, including World War II, to do so.
James was just a teenager in 1941 when the family bought its Mountain View property — 40 acres that extended from the nursery's current northern and eastern borders to Springer Road and Barbara Avenue. In the 1950s, all but the remaining 6.5 acres were sold to make way for homes.
James' father, a Japanese immigrant, was able to buy the property after finding work as a farm foreman, even though in Japan most of his family was in education. The 40 acres were an orchard, but the Satakes had plans for row crops until the 1950s.
On one fateful day, "While we were pulling orchard trees, some of our friends came and told us Japan just bombed Pearl Harbor," said James Satake.
Rather than wait around, the family loaded up a truck and took the unpopular and possibly dangerous option of leaving California before they were put into an internment camp. James said other families could have left as well with the proper paperwork, but having just come from Japan, "a lot of people had nowhere to go."
The family's lawyer made sure the bills were paid while a neighbor maintained the orchard. James said the family was very fortunate.
"We figured we're not going to be in this situation forever," he said.
The Satakes ended up working on a farm not far from the Topaz internment camp 20 miles west of Delta, Utah. As long as they registered their location with the federal government, James said, family members were allowed to live outside the camp. Topaz also happened to be the camp where many of the Peninsula's Japanese were interned, so the Satakes were able to visit friends there.
"It was a strange situation," James said about being able to "drive in and drive out" while others were being patrolled by armed guards. One Sunday, he said, an old man was shot by guards who thought he was trying to escape. Later that evening, as the Satakes were driving away from the camp, a military officer stopped them, thinking they may have been part of an escape plan. Thankfully the undertaker who was driving by to pick up the body was able to vouch for the Satakes because he knew the family from town, James said.
At the tail end of the war, James was able to join the Army and helped with the occupation of Germany. "It was still an occupation," he said. "There were still SS troopers out. It was still a dangerous area — you would see dead soldiers floating in the river."
Engaged in the community
James returned in 1946, eventually running the family business until his son Russ, a UC Berkeley graduate, took over in the 1970s. Like his father before him, Russ had worked the nursery from a young age.
"I'm 51 years old, but I've been working here for 45 years," Russ joked.
Although Russ is a Democrat, his father is a die-hard Republican — though he's been known to support Democrats like Mike Honda and Norman Mineta for "ethnic reasons."
"People in general in agriculture tend to be Republican," Russ said.
James was given a Congressional award from Honda in 2001 for his service in the community, including a run as chairman of the Fremont Fire District, which served unincorporated pockets of Mountain View and Los Altos.
He also held nearly every position possible at the local Buddhist temple and was president of the California Association of Nurseries.
Over the years, the nursery's employees reflected various waves of immigrants coming into the region. In the 1970s much of the crew was made up of political refugees from the Philippines, including a dentist and several teachers. In the 1980s the crew became more Hispanic.
The Satakes' "exit strategy," as Russ calls it, is to sell the 6.5 acres to developer SummerHill Homes. The City Council is expected to approve a plan for 30 single-family homes there.
The other half of the family's operation, its Morgan Hill nursery, is being leased by former employees.
Russ' sister, Julie Satake Ryu, is working to document the family's history in a film. The family has also met with the Mountain View Historical Association to discuss putting a display in Mountain View's history museum once it is built.
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