OUR FIRST THIRTY YEARS 1964 – 1994
By - M. G. Devins, BSGC Founding Member
The Bonsai Society is really an outgrowth of the Ikebana, or flower arranging classes, that many of us attended. We were quite interested in the arts of Japan. In September of 1964, a society devoted to bonsai was formed. A group of 10 or 12 people met at the Civic Garden Center to discuss the details of such an organization. At that time the "Statement of Purpose" was formulated and has been included in the Society's program book for many years. "The purpose of the Society shall be the study and appreciation of the art of bonsai, the development of horticulture skills, the sharing of our knowledge and the enjoyment, and a keener awareness of nature." Peggy DuCharme became President; and Florence Hopton was interested and wrote beautiful script, so she kept notes. It was decided that we would get together and help each other learn a little bit about bonsai. During that meeting, Yoshimura's book was discussed. The first printing of his book was in 1957. It was the first book on bonsai written in English, and its price in 1957 was all of $7.50 (around $77 in 2022 dollars.) Bonsai was not something that was well known here in the Cincinnati area.
There were not many meetings of the Society in the beginning. The second meeting occurred in March of 1965. The fifth meeting took place in March of 1966 and then we met at Krohn Conservatory. I remember working on barberry, and we had very little knowledge about the principals of bonsai design. There were a few people that had tried the art form before. I think Linda Gilbreath was part of a group that was in Occupied Japan after World War II. There was also a Mr. Hanson, who was very helpful.
They were the two people that knew the most about bonsai and were very busy helping the rest of the group. Florence Hopton (she is now deceased) went to California every summer to visit a daughter and she traveled the West Coast looking at the bonsai that the Japanese created out there, so her information was "Bible" to us.
In the early years of the Society, we set up bonsai displays for the House and Garden shows at the Convention Center, in the Federated Garden Club Tours of private gardens, and their yearly flower shows. We also created bonsai and sold them at Closson's for the benefit of the Society's treasury. We had shows or small displays at Krohn Conservatory, certainly not as big as we have now in our thirtieth year.
As the Society grew, so did the displays and shows. Among them was the Ohio State Fair (photographs only) and a small number of entries in the Dawes Regional Bonsai Show. The Society's larger shows have been held at the Civic Garden Center, Delhi Flower and Garden Store, and now are held at the Cincinnati Zoological and Botanical Garden.
Mr. Merkle, Mr. Honson, Mr. Maxon and Mr. Girard of Girard Nurseries were some of the speakers that we had in the early years of the Society. Those meetings were held in various places and were well attended. In those days the membership started out with twenty, at the most, and by the time we had Mr. Girard of Girard Nurseries (near Cleveland) there must have been 40 or 45 people at that lecture/demonstration.
After some time, we began to meet in people's homes, trying afternoon and evening meeting times until we found that evening meetings were better attended. During the 1968-1969 bonsai year, we began to meet at St. Aloysius Orphanage on Reading Road. With a permanent home and a storage place for supplies, the Bonsai Society began to think about having some of the “big names” of bonsai come to Cincinnati to do lecture/ demonstrations for the Society. The first White Elephant Sale, run by Miriam Pruisner, was held to help pay the cost of having Frank Okamura come to Cincinnati for the Bonsai Society. Mr. Okamura was Curator of Bonsai at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and teacher of bonsai at that institution. Mr. Okamura was a kind, helpful person who spoke English reasonably well, and he was able to answer our many questions. During his visit he made a drawing of a cascade bonsai and the Japanese character for cascade, which he translated as "a running stream". M.G. Devins still has the original of that drawing. He also gave us the calligraphy for humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom, fidelity, wood, fire, soil, air and water. This represents the very essence of the Japanese approach to bonsai. His visit with us was a very exciting event.
Our dues began at $1 in 1964. Then we got carried away and it went to $2, then $5. We were forced to increase the dues to $10. Enthusiasm was high and membership grew steadily. Dues in 1994 are $20.
The decision was made to have meetings permanently on the third Thursday evening of each month at St. Aloysius, in the Croft under the Chapel, on the invitation of our member, Sister Mary DePazzi. The tradition of having the business meeting, then a coffee break, and then the evening's program was started then. Our new home worked very well, and we were still there when we celebrated our tenth anniversary. Ginny Courtois brought the cake that said, "Happy 10th Anniversary Cincinnati Bonsai Society", for the celebration. Various members brought in surviving bonsai created in early Society workshops. In 1984 we celebrated our 20th anniversary at our present home, the Civic Garden Center.
The first year that PBS TV Channel 48 was on the air (editor’s note: WCET-TV actually went on the air in 1954, a full 10 years before BSGC was begun,) Dr. Aaron Perlman was President and he and George Fujikawa and Mary Gert Devins put on "How to Do a Bonsai." We used one of the trees from the Pages, who supplied wonderful, collected material from the mountain regions of the Grand Canyon in the Southwest. The bonsai styled for that show is still in existence.
The Society was fortunate to have George Fujikawa as a member. George knew so much about bonsai. As a little boy he was under the tutelage of a monk in one of the monasteries in Japan and had one of the first bonsai in Cincinnati. He built up a wonderful collection. You could always count on George for help at the meetings he could attend. Mary has continued the Fujikawa tradition in assisting with so many activities of the Society.
It would be remiss not to mention the early societies in the United States that have contributed a great deal to knowledge of bonsai in America. One which has been extremely important is the American Bonsai Society. "The Journal of the American Bonsai Society" was started in 1967. This is devoted to American bonsai, and the founders were generally located on the East Coast. Bonsai Clubs International was a publication from the West Coast. We have been voting members of both organizations since 1967. In recent years many new publications covering various aspects of the art of bonsai have come on the market.
"The Bonsai Society Newsletter" was originated by Tom Heitkamp in September 1972. Volume I, Number 1 included notices of a program by Laurose and George Page from New Mexico, an Autumn Show by the Society at the Civic Garden Center, and warning that the membership dues were due. Tom remained editor and chief contributor for fifteen years. The Newsletter has been published continuously, except for a gap of a few months between editors, until the present day.
One of the presidents of Bonsai Clubs International came from our Cincinnati Club. Tom Heitkamp became President of that Society around 1980. That was also the first year that the Cincinnati Bonsai Society had its first "real show". It really was a bonsai display and was produced under the direction of Hilton Sisko. This show represented all members, plus an educational display. It was held again at the Civic Garden Center and having 500 people come to see the show was overwhelming to club members. Now that the annual show is held at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, thousands of people see our display, but the first show was a triumph in 1980.
The Greater Cincinnati Bonsai Society is one of the oldest societies in the Midwest. Very few of the bonsai societies on the East Coast or the West Coast were begun before 1964.
The Bonsai Society of Greater Cincinnati has had speakers from all over the country. The first time that John Naka came we were still at St. Aloysius. That was the first time that Mr. Naka made drawings of what he hoped to achieve with the material, Robusta Green Juniper, that we worked on in his workshop. He did not have any drawing paper, so he used brown paper towels. Several members of the Society still have the brown paper drawings.
Other outstanding speakers that the Society has had are: George Hull, John Naka, Laurose and George Page, Jerry Stowell, Chase Rosade, Tosh Saburomaru, Dorothy Young, Marian Gyllenswan, Keith Scott, Bill Valavanis, Max Mendel, Greg Verrgaro, Bob Mogle, Dick Wydman, Tony Mihalic, Ben Oki. Mary Wilnot, Art Patznick, Jose Cueto, Jack Weikel, David Cook, Marion Borchers, Ralph Zimmerman, Jerry Meislik, Bruce Baker, Dan Robinson, Roy Nagatoshi, Harry Butler, Don Gould, and Jim Barrett.
The Society is in its thirtieth year. The meetings are held at the Civic Garden Center, and our membership has grown to on hundred twenty-five. May the Society continue to grow and prosper.