Saturday, June 25, 2011
The Simpsons and East Pasadena's Parrots
Seems most every morning I'm greeted by the screech of parrots. Often they fly over our house. Sometimes, like this morning, they hang around the neighborhood screeching back and forth. This one landed in our eucalyptus tree and, on cue, gave me that quizzical parrot look as I sneaked up for a picture.
Legend has it our local parrots are descendants of parrots that were let loose in 1959 when a fire engulfed Simpson's Gardenland and Bird Farm. The story is often recounted as "local legend" but, as legends go, it seems fairly well accepted. I know I've heard and read the story over and over since moving to Pasadena more than twenty years ago.
Not often reported, however, is the legend's East Pasadena connection.
You see, Simpson's Garden Town Nursery and Bird Farm was a long-time East Pasadena institution. On little more than a wing and a prayer, in 1928, Hal Simpson started his nursery. He had a $500 loan, a $55 Model T delivery truck, and moonlighted on odd jobs as his business took hold. Over time the business grew until it blossomed into a mall of sorts that included a nursery, florist, lawnmower shop, garden center, materials supply, and pet shop. Eventually Simpsons occupied a swath of land that fronted Colorado Blvd. east of Sierra Madre Blvd. and stretched north beyond the present-day 210 freeway. Billing itself as the largest and most diversified garden center in the West, at its height, Simpsons deployed 70 trucks and fielded calls on nearly 50 phone lines.
Then, in 1959, fire hit. The nursery buildings, supplies and records were destroyed. According to legend, as the fire raged, the birds (including the forebears of our local parrots) were released.
The birds were gone and a big part of his operation decimated. But, Hal Simpson got back on his feet and rebuilt. Customers stepped forward to pay accounts that were due even though Simpsons had no records. Simpsons remained an entrenched part of the East Pasadena landscape.
But, in the 50's and 60's, East Pasadena's landscape was changing fast and Simpson's resurgence was short-lived. Eventually the State of California did what the fire could not. In 1968, the State took much of the Simpson property to build the 210 freeway. Forty years after he started, Hal Simpson was finished.
But, the story's not over.
Old Hal was not quite ready to call it a day. With proceeds from the State of California, he moved south. He bought a160-acre spread in East San Diego County and ... that old guy started over growing and selling plants.
And, in 2011, Simpsons Garden Town Nursery in Jamul, California is operated by Hal's granddaughter, Cathy. Like her grandad, Cathy offers plants, and lots more, for sale. She has a pretty good website, too, with pictures of the nursery, gift shop and dozens of classic cars on display at Garden Town. Fittingly enough, Cathy's website pays homage to Garden Town's East Pasadena roots and beautifully tells the story of Hal Simpson -- a story that I've recounted above.