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Rooted in San Pedro : After 66 Years, Nurseryman Plants the Seeds of His Retirement

Times Staff Writer

When Curtis Johnson came to town in 1923, San Pedro was mainly a fishing village and Calvin Coolidge was the president off there in Washington, presiding over the flapper era.

“Have there been changes since then, you’re asking?” said the 89-year-old Johnson, who closed the doors of his Mesa Nursery last week after 66 years on the corner of Mesa and 8th streets. “I don’t know where to start.”

Johnson, who seems to enjoy better health and more vigor than many men 20 or 30 years younger, started by ticking off a lot of things that weren’t around in the 1920s.

“Well, we didn’t have any gangs and shootings and drugs and freeways and traffic jams and things of that nature,” he said. “They’ve gotten out of hand, that’s for sure.”

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Housing costs also are out of control, he said. “Why, back in 1951, I bought a house under construction for $9,995 and today that same property would go for $400,000. I just don’t know how people, especially the young people, can afford a home any more.”

Not Much Fishing Now

In the old days, he recalled, most people around town were Italians and Slavs and they worked for the canneries over on Terminal Island. “Not much fishing going on any more,” he said, adding that the population has been shifting lately toward Latinos and Asians.

People were happier in those days, he said, because life was slower, more stable and predictable. When he would look out the window of Mesa Nursery, which he bought from I. F. Powell after working for him for 10 years, he would likely see one or two horseback riders in the street, or maybe a wagon or horse and buggy.

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“Well, we did have a few cars,” he said. “I got my first car in 1928, a Model T Ford sedan that cost me $868.”

But a lot of things haven’t changed, either, he said. San Pedro’s adobe soil still tends to be alkaline and that locks up the nutrients, he said, so you have to add the right stuff, like liquid sulfur.

Of the nursery business, he said: “I don’t know it all. But I know more than most. You got to know what you’re doing to make things grow right.”

And the people who came to his nursery, right up until he sold the property to developer John Mavar and closed the doors, haven’t changed either. “They are the backbone of the community,” he said. “All good people and honest as the day is long.”

Johnson’s customers returned his affection and respect, according to the veteran nurseryman’s friends. “Curtis is loved by everybody,” said Ed Randall, a longtime real estate agent who has known Johnson for more than 40 years. “After they made him, they threw away the mold.”

Randall said he helped out at the store on closing day, and some old customers came by, not knowing that Johnson had quit his business. “It was heartbreaking to see their reaction,” he said. “Some were crying. This was the man they had come to over the years with twigs or branches, and Curtis would always know what the plant was and how to make it grow. It’s the end of an era.”

Even though he has finally retired, Johnson doesn’t intend to just sit around and wait for his 90th birthday, next December. The expertise he acquired over a long lifetime will be put to work for other nurseries on a consulting basis, he said, and he will continue to be active in the Masonic Lodge and the Chamber of Commerce and other civic organizations.

But first, said Esther, his bride of four years, the couple will drive up to Idaho and Oregon to visit friends and relatives, and then take a Mediterranean cruise in June.

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In an interview at the couple’s home at the southern edge of San Pedro, Esther, 81, said she had known Curtis for a long time before they married. Her husband of nearly 30 years, Leo Graham, died in 1977, and his wife of 50 years, Zena, died in 1983.

“I bought roses from Curtis for 35 years,” said Esther, a former teacher at White Point Elementary School. “Everybody always said he’s such a nice man.”

“Don’t be telling secrets, honey,” her husband said, laughing.

“Well,” she continued, “when Curtis finally discovered me. . . .”

He interrupted again: “Let me tell it, honey.”

Romance between the couple blossomed, he said, at a Masonic Lodge party in 1985. He said he looked at Esther that night and made up his mind on the spot. “You know,” he said he told a friend, “I’m going to marry that gal.”

Led to Dinner Date

That led to a dinner date and, soon afterward, he popped the question. “She said she had been waiting for months and months for me to ask,” Johnson said.

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“I didn’t say ‘yes’ right away,” Esther said, smiling. Does she still agree with what everybody has said for years about Johnson?

“Yes, he’s a nice man,” she said. “I cook the dinner, but he washes the dishes.”

Despite long hours at the nursery, she said, Johnson has found time to serve his community--Chamber of Commerce, YMCA, Salvation Army, the Masons. He has been chairman for nearly 30 years of the annual Spirit of Christmas program for the elderly and poor at Ports O’ Call Village.

Johnson also seemed to enjoy talking about his civic activities. But his accounts of good deeds centered on what others were doing.

Esther Johnson said the couple still has many, many friends, but added sadly: “When you get to our age, a lot of your friends are in the cemetery.”

There are few discordant notes in Johnson’s account of his long life, which began in Augusta, Mont., a year before the turn of the century. When he was a baby, the family moved to Washington state and eventually to Modesto--by covered wagon--where he farmed until he came to San Pedro and the Mesa nursery in 1923.

‘I Wouldn’t Change Anything’

“I’ve accomplished everything I set out to do,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything . . . except a few things.” Among those, he said, were the early deaths of his twin brother from typhoid at the age of 22, long ago, and his only child, Paul, at age 40 in 1964.

“He was a full commander in the Navy,” Johnson said proudly. He has three grandchildren.

When asked to reveal his secret for long life, Johnson’s teasing smile indicated he has been asked that question many times before.

“Go to bed early and get up early,” he said. “Live a good, clean, healthy life--and always pay your bills on time.”

And, he mused, it helps to associate with nice people. A lot of them visited Mesa Nursery over the years, he said. They had a common interest in what grows from the soil.


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