When the Fujishige family began farming their strawberry field, property in the area was being hawked for cases of whiskey, and Richard Nixon’s brother would one day be serving up burgers next door.
Those were the days when rows of eucalyptus trees formed wind breaks across Katella Avenue, just south of where Disneyland now stands, and the city was known for its orange groves and not yet as the home of Mickey Mouse.
Donald Nixon’s burger joint and the trees are gone now, and property sells for more than $1 million per acre. But Hiroshi Fujishige would rather that time had stopped around 1955.
Having resisted countless multimillion-dollar offers for the 58-acre farm now shadowed by gleaming high-rises, Fujishige holds one of the largest undeveloped prime tracts in the city.
Now, he finds himself in the path of a developer giant: the Walt Disney Co., which is not expected to take no for an answer in its quest to secure a future site for a possible third Disney attraction in the area.
Some say the Fujishiges are merely holding out for the right price. But many more say the they are holding on to a philosophy that the family land is sacred.
“He has an Oriental omniscience about him,” said one man close to the family, describing Hiroshi Fujishige, 68. “Some say he’s crazy, because he’s sitting on property worth between $60 million and $70 million, watching his strawberries grow. I think he knows something we don’t know.”
In many ways, the Fujishiges represent a common struggle to tame powerful development interests. But the suicide of Fujishige’s brother in 1986 during the family’s fight to prevent the city from building roads through the property has other landowners and city officials drawing mystical comparisons this time.
Among the locals, the suicide is so closely tied to the family’s hold on the property that one Anaheim official said the city is no longer interested in the property.
But Disney is getting closer. Neighboring property owners, after lifetimes of running tiny inns, restaurants and trailer parks, are happily walking away with Disney’s millions in moves that are sure to change Anaheim’s landscape once again.
Yet there are some holdouts who are sympathetic to the Fujishige family’s plight, those who quietly cheer each time Hiroshi Fujishige walks away from a jackpot deal that could provide a lifetime of security for him and the family.
One prospective buyer drove to the farm recently with a proposal worth $2 million per acre.
“I didn’t even get his name,” Fujishige said matter-of-factly. “This land means quite a bit to me. My brother died for it.”
But Fujishige has acknowledged that he may have to sell his property.
“It’s home,” he said. “But I could see where I may have to move, maybe in three, four or five years. I’m happy doing what I’m doing, that’s all I know.”
Fujishige implies that security for his family is the reason he has been reluctant to part with his land.
“I’ve got to make sure there is security for my brother’s family and my family.”
Hidden from busy Harbor Boulevard by a clump of trees, Fujishige’s weathered, wood-frame home sits in the middle of the farm. The only thing imposing about the structure is its security system: German shepherds posted on two sides.
Fujishige, usually attired in layers of work clothes and a worn white cap, said he and his brother Masao took control of the Anaheim field in exchange for “about 20 acres” of family farm land in Norwalk.
He said the plan was for him to supervise the operation of the farm, while Masao continued his education. But World War II interrupted that plan and in 1941, the family was forced to leave California to escape “evacuation” to internment camps.
“We loaded up everything we could and went to live in Utah.”
It was farming that brought the family back to California after the war and later to Anaheim where vegetables and strawberries have long been the family’s cash crops.
Standing in the mud just outside his home, Fujishige estimated that developers did not start making the drive up the unpaved path to his house until after Disneyland’s successful opening in 1955.
But by far the most costly challenge for the family property came to a head in 1986 when the city and an adjacent land owner sought to condemn four acres of the Fujishige’s land for roads to serve a planned high-rise office and hotel complex.
At the time, family members said Masao was plagued by health problems resulting from a stroke three years earlier that left him too weak to fight the city’s condemnation plans. In early July of that year he killed himself with a shotgun.
“He was sick, too,” Hiroshi Fujishige said recently of his brother’s death. “I don’t know exactly what happened.”
Anaheim attorney Tom Kieviet, who participated in negotiations with the family related to the condemnation proceedings, said of the suicide: “When it happened, our impression was that there was a lot more to it then the question of whether his property would be developed. . . . The apparent reasons for his death were not really known and still may not be known.”
In an emotional address to the City Council a week after his brother’s suicide, Hiroshi Fujishige told city officials they were not to blame for the tragedy, but Hiroshi still lists the fight to save the land as a contributing factor to the suicide.
New interest in the family’s property surfaced last month when it was revealed that Disney paid $30.2 million for a 23-acre former mobile home park across from Disneyland and bordering the Fujishige strawberry field.
Those familiar with Disney’s long-term plans, beyond its proposal for a $1 billion second attraction for Anaheim or Long Beach, say the strawberry farm is being considered as a possible home for the entertainment company’s third area expansion.
Fujishige said that he, too, had been approached by Disney, which was seeking a long-term lease on the farm.
The preliminary offer, reportedly worth $32 million for a 99-year lease, was rejected by Fujishige as “insulting.”
“It sure seemed to me that I was about to end up like those Indians who used to own Manhattan Island,” the farmer said last month.
In recent weeks, sources say, negotiations have been continuing.
Although Disney executives have repeatedly declined to comment on Anaheim land purchases or ongoing negotiations for additional property, a broker familiar with transactions in the city and other local land owners say it will be only a matter of time before the deal is done.
Hiroshi Fujishige also seems uneasy and unsure about discussing the future of his farm.
“I gotta get some more ground to farm on,” he said. Yet he also affirms that the Fujishiges are still in control. “It’s the family’s ground. It belongs to the family.”