Sam Cronig and brothers opened Vineyard Haven store in 1917. The family immigrated from Lithuania in 1904.
Cronig's Celebrates 100 Years of Feeding the Vineyard Community
Thursday, March 9, 2017 - 5:22pm
When 28-year-old Sam Cronig and his three younger brothers opened their Vineyard Haven market in March 1917, the world was still at war in Europe and Martha’s Vineyard had a year-round population of about 4,500.
One hundred years later, the Cronig’s name still stands above two grocery stores, though that business changed hands three decades ago, and a real estate company that has remained in the family for the past century. The Vineyard has many older families, but the Cronigs hold a special place in Island history — not only as store proprietors who served generations of local families and summer visitors, but as the first Jewish family to settle here year-round.
“I am very proud of my heritage and the legacy that was left by the Cronigs,” said Gayle Stiller, one of several Cronig grandchildren who still live and work on the Vineyard.
Arriving from Lithuania in 1904, 15-year-old Sam Krengle received his new surname from immigration officials in New York city. The eldest of nine children born to a Yiddish-speaking village grocer who had planned for his firstborn to become a rabbi, Mr. Cronig worked briefly in the city before leaving to stay with cousins in New Bedford. In 1905, he moved to a farm on Martha’s Vineyard that had advertised for a hired hand. That didn’t last long, either.
David and Robert Cronig outside the Vineyard Haven Store. — Courtesy Peter Cronig
“I guess he got tired of his job and he came and got a job at Swift, Bodfish & Smith,” which was then a grocery market, said Mr. Cronig’s son David, who is 102 and now living in Florida. While learning the American retail business, Sam Cronig also worked to bring his younger siblings to the U.S. Edward and Theodore came first and then Henry and sister Tillie, who were smuggled into Germany from Russian-occupied Lithuania.
“We traveled chiefly at night, sometimes in wagons, under loads of hay or stacks of milk cans,” Henry Cronig told the Gazette 50 years later, in 1964. “The nearer we came to the German border, the greater the tenseness.” Four other siblings remained behind, later settling abroad.
After a seasick passage from Rotterdam and a terrifying quarantine in New York, Henry and Tillie rejoined their older brothers on a Plymouth County farm Sam had bought with money he earned on the Vineyard.
Henry, who would later found Cronig’s Real Estate, was unimpressed with the farm but intrigued by the source of the money. “The thought came to me that if I was to learn English, I would have to live with the Gentiles, and it seemed to me, from what I could learn, that Martha’s Vineyard was the place to go,” he said in the 1964 interview.
Main Street, Vineyard Haven, 1965 after second floor was added. — Courtesy Peter Cronig
He arrived on the Island in May, 1915 and soon convinced his brothers to join him. The family was already growing: Sam had married their cousin Libby Levine in New Bedford in 1912 and the couple’s first child, David, was born in 1914.
By the end of 1916, the four brothers had earned enough money to start their own business. The Cronig Brothers Market opened its doors at Main and Church streets in Vineyard Haven March 10, 1917.
“We bought a wagon for $10 and a horse for $30, and we opened,” Henry Cronig recalled in 1964. “It was a sorry-looking store. We piled everything we had on the shelves in order to make the best showing possible.” While working with his brothers, Henry founded his own business, Cronig’s Real Estate, which also celebrates its centennial this year.
The original shop began chiefly as a meat market with its own slaughterhouse, David Cronig said this week. The store had grown to a full-service grocery by the time he was old enough to lend a hand, becoming the first in a long line of Cronig kids to work in the family markets over the next six and a half decades.
“I think I was seven or eight years old,” Mr. Cronig recalled. “I wanted to work in the store, so they gave me a broom and said, sweep the floor. That was my first employment.”
Working at Cronig’s became the first job — and in some cases the sole career — for a long line of Cronig children and grandchildren as well. While both Henry and Theodore eventually left to run their own businesses, Sam and Edward continued to operate the store with Sam’s sons David and Robert, his daughter Anne and, for many years, his daughter Ruth Stiller, who died last summer at 94.
David Wade outside the market in the late 1970s. — Courtesy Peter Cronig
David took a 12-year break from the family business to work for Capt. Ralph Packer’s Texaco company, but returned in 1945, and with Robert, took over management of the market in 1957. Their work force was peppered with younger Cronigs and Stillers.
“It was total involvement in the store. We lived it and we breathed it,” said Robert’s daughter Judy Cronig, who started helping out in the office and at the checkout stand when she was about 11. “That was our world.”
Carlyle Cronig’s son Peter, who works at the real estate company, held summer jobs through college at both the original Main Street Cronig’s and the State Road market that David and Robert opened in 1976. But it’s the original market, with its old-fashioned push-button cash registers, that he and his cousins remember best.
“It was a small store, so in the summer it was extremely crowded with wagons and people trying to get through the aisles,” Peter Cronig told the Gazette. To beat the crowds, many customers telephoned in their orders for home delivery, a service the market had offered since its horse and wagon days.
“We would fill the orders early in the morning,” he recalled. “There would probably be 10 of us who would go around with shopping carts.” The orders were boxed and delivered to Vineyard Haven customers, twice a day in high season, on two routes. “The south end was everybody in town and the north end was West Chop,” said Neil Stiller, who also works at Cronig’s Real Estate.
The summer colony at West Chop attracted many artists, actors and other celebrities. Gayle and Neil Stiller both remember their mother Ruth’s tales of meeting Helen Keller, who felt her face. Notoriously volatile playwright Lillian Hellman got into a screaming match with one of their uncles over whether or not a chicken had been delivered.
Carlyle Cronig with nieces Judy and Nancy Cronig in 1945. — Courtesy Peter Cronig
“She used to come in the store and just berate workers,” Mr. Stiller said. A chance encounter with Carly Simon in her chart-topping heyday left a better taste: “Avocados — that was my big exchange with her,” he said.
But for the most part, Sam Cronig’s grandchildren remember a bustling yet peaceful life shaped by the six-day-a-week round of retail chores, from receiving to delivery and accounting, and occasional Sunday trips to the beach.
“You were around your friends and relatives and that was what you did,” Peter Cronig said.
While the kids worked their jobs and the men managed the meat, produce and grocery sections, Sam’s daughter Anne was the power behind the scenes.
“She was the office lady. She really ran everything, all the billing, all the orders,” Peter Cronig said. Assisted for many years by her sister Ruth, Anne Cronig never married and remained on the job for most of her life. A past president of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Society, which her father had helped to found in 1940, she died in 1999.
“I think if she’d grown up in another generation, she’d probably have gone to college,” Ms. Stiller said.
Anne Cronig, in back, with niece Goodie Stiller at the register in 1975. — Courtesy Peter Crong
“She was a little woman. I don’t think she ever reached five feet. But she had a large presence,” she added.
The downtown Vineyard Haven Cronig’s eventually became so crowded that David and Robert opened a second location on State Road in 1976, with parking for customers from the town and up-Island. David Cronig retired in 1980, and in the same year the Main Street Cronig’s was sold out of the family.
Robert — widely known as Robbie — sold the State Road store and the Cronig’s Markets name to Steve Bernier, a 22-year Star Market veteran, in 1986. In different hands, the downtown Cronig’s closed in 1989. In 1990, Mr. Bernier opened Up-Island Cronig’s, renovating the market six years later. He added the wellness-oriented Healthy Additions store, behind the Vineyard Haven Cronig’s, in 2004.â€©
While David Cronig started his retail career with a broom in his hand, Mr. Bernier begins each work day sweeping up the parking lots and entrances of his store before the doors open to customers. “It’s my job to make sure this store is presentable,” he said. “I have a job to do, and I also have an example to set for my employees. The old school has something the young people need to observe.” In other example-setting moves, Cronig’s added a solar-charging shade canopy in its Vineyard Haven parking lot in 2012, stopped selling cigarettes in 2015 and installed a second solar canopy at the Up-Island store in 2016.
Steve Bernier purchased the business in 1986. — Mark Lovewell
Mr. Bernier’s approach includes stocking local products from more than 50 Vineyard farms, bakeries, soap makers, chocolatiers and other purveyors, sponsoring the Community Grocery Program that encourages shoppers to buy food for needier Islanders and taking energetic part in the Our Island Club discount shopping and donation network. Card-carrying members receive 30 per cent off groceries through the end of this month in celebration of the markets’ centenary.
He also insists on personal service. “There are no signs at the cash register saying ‘Thank you for shopping,’ because I want the cashiers to say it to the customers,” Mr. Bernier said.
There’s no chance he will slap his own name on the business he’s owned for 31 years, Mr. Bernier said, pointing out that Cronig’s Markets was already 69 when he came along. “Who the hell am I?” he asked. “It’s not my market. It belongs to the community.”
And although their own days working there are decades-old memories, Sam Cronig’s grandchildren are still proud to see their family name atop the two markets and photos of their grandfather and uncles inside.
“I am very glad that Steve has talked so much about my grandfather and my father,” Judy Cronig said. “I like that for carrying on the history. I don’t feel everyone would have done that, give so much credit to the past.”