The Rutherford Report—Business Made Big Splash in Lily Market

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“Do what you can,
where you are, with
what you have.”

—Theodore Roosevelt
Business Made Big Splash in Lily Market

When Bobby Van Ness’s health began to decline, he and his wife, Edith, decided to move to sunny Southern California to escape the chilly Pennsylvania winters in the early 1920s.

The couple moved to a home in the unincorporated community of San Antonio Heights and started a business selling gold fish, which were in vogue at the time. The sparkly fish along with various municipal water features were especially important to convincing newcomers that Southern California, despite its arid appearance, had lots of water.

The couple sold goldfish locally and via the mail and also developed backyard ponds for customers. Edith, who was an avid gardener, added water lilies and bog plants to their stock, and, in 1932, Van Ness Water Gardens issued its first catalog. It told readers, who were suffering through the Great Depression, that a water garden was “not only a thing of beauty, but a great source of comfort during these days of stress.”

The couple sold their business to Edith’s first cousin, Ted Uber, and his wife, Louella, in 1952. Ted had been successful at selling decorations and house wares he fashioned from aluminum, but his business was hit hard by aluminum rationing during the Korean War much as it had been during World War II.

Ted didn’t know a lot about flowers, but he knew of an eccentric, reclusive man named Martin Randig in San Bernardino who had developed an astonishing array of hybrid water lilies. He went to visit Martin on numerous occasions to seek his help, but he was turned away time and again. Eventually, however, the two developed a friendship, and Martin granted Van Ness Water Gardens the right to introduce eight new tropically lilies he had developed.

“That’s what put us on the map,” Ted’s son, Bill, said. “That made us the number one lily company in the world.”

The lilies Martin developed were more condense than ordinary water lilies, and they produced more flowers as well, Bill said.

Most of the company’s flowers were sold abroad, including Germany, the Netherlands and South Korea.

“We were better known throughout the world than we were locally,” Bill said.

Bill and his wife, Carolyn, took over the business in 1972 after Bill was discharged from the Air Force. During a trip to Amsterdam, the couple was dining in a small café when they sparked up a conversation with some locals.

“They asked, ‘Where are you from?’ and we told them we’re from America,” he said. “Then they asked ‘Do you know the Van Ness Water Gardens?’ and I said, ‘Yes, we own it.’”

Over the years, Van Ness Water Gardens has struggled through droughts that prompted more and more people to abandon their backyard ponds, and the advent of big box retailers such as Lowes and Home Depot didn’t help either.

The additional inspections and other shipping hassles that came after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 also made it more difficult to get their delicate flowers to foreign markets, which had been their bread and butter for so many years.

“I’m going to keep it going for awhile, but I don’t know for how long,” said Bill, noting that he’s now 70 years old. “This property will probably be sold and developed into three or four homes.”

Van Ness Water Gardens is located at 2460 North Euclid Avenue on a sprawling property dotted with concrete ponds filled with an assortment of water lilies, lotus plants, gold fish, koi and bull frogs. Visitors are welcome.

Learn more Van Ness Water Gardens by visiting
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