How the Country's Oldest Businesses Adapted to Survive
February 16, 2018
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Running a business isn’t easy, and only those that adapt to changing times and tastes can survive. Here are five interesting tales from some of America’s oldest businesses… told in their own words!
A Growing Concern
Barker’s Farm, North Andover, Massachusetts
Established in 1642, this farm has been run by 10 generations of the Barker family, including most recently George and Dorothea Barker and their adult daughters, Dianne, Laurie, Beth, and Karen. At one time, the farm encompassed over 400 acres; about 110 remain.
The family has adapted to changing times. “One of the first things I gave up was potatoes,” says George. It seems that they weren’t a good crop for the hired high school boys to harvest. “It wasn’t difficult [work],” he says. “It’s just that the little potatoes are nice to throw when the boss isn’t looking.”
Another time, he says, “I had cows and grew vegetables, specializing in dairy and sweet corn. Then a man who worked for me for 40 years told me, ‘George, I don’t want to milk cows anymore.’ So it was an easy choice to give up the cows rather than him.”
The Spirits of America
Laird & Company, Scobeyville, New Jersey
When William Laird emigrated from Scotland to America in 1698, he began making applejack for family and friends. In 1780, his grandson Robert Laird formally established in Scobeyville, New Jersey, what would become America’s first commercial distillery. Today, Larrie Laird is president and CEO.
Sometime before 1760, farmer George Washington wrote to the Laird family asking for their applejack recipe. During the Revolution, soldier Robert Laird kept General Washington’s troops supplied with “cyder spirits.” Later, the future president dined at the Laird home.
Changing times required changes to the business. “Prohibition was a big challenge for us,” says Lisa Laird Dunn, executive vice president. The company has adjusted by producing sweet cider, applesauce, and federally licensed brandy used for “medicinal purposes.”
The John Stevens Shop, Newport, Rhode Island
Founded in 1705, The John Stevens Shop engraves stone. In 1927, artist and stone carver John Howard Benson bought the shop from the Stevens family, later passing it on to his son, who in turn passed it onto his son, current owner Nicholas Benson.
“It’s so nice to go out to the Common Burying Ground and look at all the old colonial stones that came out of our shop,” says Nick, who got involved in the business at age 15.
More recently, the Bensons have inscribed landmarks such as the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, the Boston Public Library, the National Gallery of Art, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the National Cathedral.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Although Nick draws letters by hand with a broad-edge brush just as ancient Roman craftsmen once did, he uses a computer to plan large projects and create typefaces.
“Oftentimes, people think of the shop as this sort of business that’s frozen in amber,” observes Nick. “It becomes more and more difficult for people to understand the merit of what we do. That being said, because our craft is dying off at such a rapid rate, people are even more impressed.”
Seaside Inn, Kennebunk Beach, Maine
Trish Mason’s family has been running the Seaside Inn since 1756, when Jedidiah Gooch, her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather bought the business from a cousin. In the 1880s, Isaac Gooch built a hotel.
Change has not come easy for all generations. “During Isaac’s time, indoor plumbing became available,” says Trish, “but his wife was disgusted by the idea of people doing that inside the home and she forbade it. It wasn’t until her death that a ‘tower of toilets’ was added onto the side of the hotel, giving each floor a bath to share.”
Shirley Plantation, Charles City, Virginia
Twelve generations of one family have been running Virginia’s first plantation since its founding in 1613. Edward Hill established a farm on the Virginia frontier in 1638. The “Great House” was built between 1723 and 1738 for Edward’s great-granddaughter, Elizabeth, who married John Carter.
The Shirley Plantation
In the 1950s, estate taxes threatened to make it impossible to pass on the property to the next generation. “My father’s response was to open the manor to visitors, lease out sand mining on a portion of the property, and fight the state’s evaluation of the estate,” says Charles Carter. “He was successful on all fronts.”
Today, Charles and his wife Lauren live in the Great House, where visitors are welcome for tours. With Charles’s brother Randy, the couple oversees the 700-acre property and family business.
“I wanted to be a farmer just like my father and his father and on back into time,” Charles says. He has the generations on record. “There are 18,000 family documents from the 1600s to the early 20th century on loan to a library for safekeeping and academic research.”