The Midwest Bonsai Society, It's Beginning and It's Growth

By Larry Larimer

From an article by Ruth Ladany, including interviews with: George Kay, Alex Alexander, Louise Rzeszweski, Jack Wilson andPeter Voynovich

The history of the Midwest Bonsai Society has been difficult to unravel because there were actually two organizations called the Midwest Bonsai Society with almost total overlaps of membership. For this reason, some older members say the Society started in 1957 and others say it started in 1967.

The Midwest Bonsai Society started meeting at the D. Hill Nursery sometime in the middle to late 1950’s. The first show of the Midwest Bonsai Society had to have been held in 1958 at the D. Hill Nursery. Pictured here is a silver tray award given at the 6th show which was held in 1964.


George Kay had graduated from Michigan State with a degree in horticulture and went to work at D. Hill. He had always had an interest in bonsai and wanted to start some interest in bonsai in connection with D. Hill. This was in the late 1950's.

About this time he met Alex Alexander and his partner, Ed Sevcik, who were also interested in bonsai.

It is important to understand that in 1950 and 1960 there was almost no information about bonsai in this country. Tools were almost impossible to find. Pots were available but they were almost invariably bright and shiny and blue.

I know about this because I had been stationed in Japan and was interested in bonsai and could not find out anything as late as 1962.

George and Alex and Ed held the first bonsai show at D. Hill in 1958. George had found a Japanese architect who knew something about bonsai and he would come to D. Hill and give lessons and demonstrations.

In 1967 for some reason the group who were members of the Midwest Bonsai Society at D. Hill decided to set up a society to study and further the understanding of bonsai. George Kay hinted that D. Hill had lost interest in keeping bonsai at the nursery. Or it is possible that the group decided it was too far to go to the nursery in Dundee.

There was a meeting in the potting shed at D. Hill Nursery in 1967 where the Midwest Bonsai Society as we know it today was established. At this meeting, officers were elected and it was decided to hold meetings on the first Monday of every month.

Officers elected:

  • President - Lee Firth
  • V.P. Program Chairman - Alex Alexander
  • Treasurer - Ruth Ladany
  • Corresponding Secretary. - Jeanelle Kochin
  • Recording Secretary - Marge Swenneson

In Ruth Ladany's article she named as members at that time the following: John and Viola Clay, Norman Downing, La Vita and Kenny Hill, Jules Ladany,Gay Laubsch, Betty and Paul La Vigne, Harold Lenz, Alex Leighton, Joe and Lollie Price, Ruth Rice, Pat Rockford, Irene Schmidt, Ed Scully, and “perhaps a few more”.

The “few more” might well have included Virginia Ellerman, Ron Fischer, Jack and Elizabeth Wilson, Les Lange, Harold Tsunehara.

There is a sad story about Harold Tsunehara. He started a bonsai garden on Dundee Road where trees and supplies were sold. His first winter was one of the coldest we had ever had. The temp dropped down to 20 below zero. He had trenched his trees and trees for customers and used wood chips for insulation. The wood chips came up as high as the trunks of the trees. The wood chips got wet, the freeze followed and hung on for several days and most of the trees died.

For a time this new group, still called The Midwest Bonsai Society, met in each other's homes. Later they started having their meetings at the Chicago Botanic Garden where they still meet today.

The first show at the Chicago Botanic Garden was held in 1978, if my math is correct. Shown here is a poster from the second show held in 1979 and the sixth show. If there is a poster from the first show, I do not have it.


It is interesting to note that even the second show was referred to as the “Mid-America Bonsai Exhibit”. Apparently there was some restriction even then from calling it the “Midwest Bonsai Show” perhaps because D. Hill called their show the Midwest Bonsai Show.