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Monrovia’s Strawberry King

By Susie Ling

Mary Yoshie Uyeda Sakatani, 93 years old, asked me several times when I moved into our house on Colorado Blvd. Mary lives just a couple of blocks south of me and she said, “But they didn’t let Asians move north of Walnut.” Racial covenants existed in Monrovia and many other communities through the 1960s. But because of Mary’s generation – and the generation before that – much has improved.

 

Monrovia’s Yutaro Uyeda, the Strawberry King. – Photo courtesy of Keiko Sakatani

 

Mary has lived in Monrovia all her life – except for the years she was in a Wyoming concentration camp during World War II. She was born near the old Monrovia Airport. Her father, Yutaro Uyeda (1877-1949) originated from Fukuoka and went to Hawaii in 1903. On the mainland, he found work laying tracks for Pacific Electric’s Monrovia-Glendora line. When that work led him to Monrovia near 1907, he stayed. In 1919, Yutaro sent for a picture bride, Naka Shinohara (1889-1988), originally from Kumamoto. The Uyedas had three children: Isamu, Toshiko, and Mary. Mary said, “My father was a small man, very loud, and very hardworking. In those day, my sister and I were never allowed to sit down on a sofa during the day. Mom was also a hard worker. She was always busy with our fruit stand at 331 W. Huntington Drive.” Yutaro farmed acres of strawberries and was dubbed the “Strawberry King of Monrovia.”

 

Uyeda’s Produce Stand, 331 W. Huntington Drive. – Photo courtesy of Keiko Sakatani.

 

Farm life in Monrovia was hard work for the Uyedas and other Japanese pioneers. Yutaro was able to use City land between Mayflower and Magnolia – just north of Huntington. But Yutaro would often take advantage of other empty unused lots wherever he found them. If owners complained, he would gift them flats of strawberries. He even gave strawberries to police officers and others in Monrovia. Despite his broken English, he got along fine and everybody knew him. He did own the home at 331 West Huntington Drive (today’s Living Spaces). As the 1913 Alien Land Act prevented resident aliens to buy land, it was probably purchased in his son, Isamu’s name. Isamu died after being kicked by a horse when he was nine years old.

Mary said, “We use to have Japanese laborers come in from Los Angeles to help pick the strawberries. But that was so much work for my mother because she had to cook for them. They would sleep in our garage.” Soon after, Yutaro started hiring Mexican neighbors. Mary explained, “It was so much better as they would simply go home for lunch and after work.” Naka and her girls worked at the fruit stand on Huntington Drive. “It was a busy route between LA and Palm Springs and business was good.”

 

1938 Monrovia Parade. – Photo courtesy of Keiko Sakatani.

 

Mary remembers other Japanese American families in Monrovia before World War II. She said, “Tosh Asano was very popular because he was a star athlete.” Tosh’s father, Tom, was a gardener and they had a small store at 709 S. Myrtle. The Kuromiya’s had a fruit stand on Huntington Drive too. There were also Tsuneishi’s, Mimaki’s, Soyeshima’s, Kawaguchi’s, and Morimoto’s. Mary said, “The Japanese wouldn’t see each other much because we were all working. The kids saw each other on Saturdays at the Japanese language school where Mayflower dead ends, just south of Duarte Road. And once a year, we would get-together for the New Year mochizuki (rice pounding event). Those were fun. The only other social activities were the kenjinkai picnics at Elysian Park.” Mary and her sister attended Santa Fe Elementary, Clifton, and MAD (Monrovia-Arcadia-Duarte) High School – and went straight to work each day after school.

But Yutaro did have a special friend: Orman Good. Mary said, “He sure had a funny name but he was indeed a good man.” Orman Good was born in Maine and an agent for Standard Oil Company, according to Monrovia City’s 1925 directory. He owned a small home at 607 E. Lemon Avenue with his wife, Clara, and their 3 children. Yutaro had a gas pump on his property and he and Orman got to be drinking buddies.

After Pearl Harbor, Yutaro was picked up by the Monrovia Police, at the behest of the FBI, and sent to a high security facility in Santa Fe. Mary said, “The Monrovia police seemed kind of embarrassed because they knew my dad. I was 18 years old and forced to leave my schooling at Pasadena Junior College.” Executive Order 9066 forced Monrovia’s Japanese to evacuate to the Pomona detention center and then Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. Mary said, “The most humiliating part for me was being forced to wear numbered tags while standing in line at the Pomona Fairgrounds. She added, “Being young, I enjoyed myself in camp. I worked in the mess hall and then as Mr. Newton’s secretary in the lead office. When Dad finally joined us, he worked on sugar beet farms.” While in camp, Mary also married Masato Sakatani, formerly of El Monte.

The Uyeda’s were very lucky because Orman Good looked after their Monrovia property. “We gave the Goods our sugar rations and Mrs. Good brought us cookies while we were at Pomona Detention Center. Mr. Good would send us money from leasing out our home. He had been given power of attorney. Mr. Good picked us up – along with the Asanos – from the Monrovia train station when we returned from camp. We had a hard time evicting our tenants so we lived in the garage for a while.”

 

Monrovia’s Japanese language school on Mayflower in early 1930s. Note the outhouse to the left of photo. – Photo courtesy of Keiko Sakatani.

 

Mary’s daughter, Keiko, adds, “For years, my father would bring a box of fruits and vegetables to the Goods. They, in turn, would bake us date nut and orange breads, a real treat for us children.” Keiko and her sisters were born in Monrovia after World War II. When Grandpa Yutaro planted seeds, Keiko would toddle behind and take them out.

The Soyeshima’s, Asano’s, Kuromiya’s, and Tsuneishi’s returned to Monrovia after internment. Many of the men found employment in gardening and the women as domestic servants. Mary Sakatani later became the supervisor of the clerical department at the California Employment Services in Monrovia. After the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act allowed it, Naka Uyeda became a naturalized citizen in 1955.

Mary said, “Where else would I go [after the War]?” Keiko added, “Monrovia is a small, quiet, conservative town. There have been a lot of changes, but there are a lot of memories here for us.” The family of Monrovia’s Strawberry King has lived in town for 110 years. I would have to live in Monrovia for another 102 years to match that record.

February 28, 2017

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