The grocery shopping experience has certainly changed in the past few generations. We've gone from the "mom-and-pop" stores in a neighborhood near you, to the kind of today with several thousand square feet of space.
Many of these huge stores, such as Hannaford, Price Chopper or Wegmans got their start as very small operations. For example, Arthur Hannaford opened a small produce store along the waterfront in Portland, Maine, in 1883. Lewis Golub opened a small dairy store in Schenectady in 1907. John Wegman opened the Rochester Fruit & Vegetable Co. in 1916.
Closer to home, W.H. Dunne started a regional food wholesale company in Chenango County. It became the Victory Market chain of stores, later known as Great American.
W.H. Dunne was born in 1868 in Tyner, found along today's county Route 3 between Oxford and Smithville Center. As a young boy he moved to Oxford, attending the Oxford Academy. Dunne started a grocery there with John Lillis. But in March 1899 Dunne moved to Norwich and started a grocery on East Main Street, with E.L. Smith. After Smith's death, Dunne joined E.J. Hicks and H.L. Tucker in a retail grocery.
In 1908, Dunne formed a partnership with Merton L. Hunt, creating the W.H. Dunne Co. It was originally a wholesale distributor of fruits, vegetables and dairy products. So unlike the Hannaford, Golub and Wegman families, Dunne's business didn't get started with a single retail establishment.
Dunne remained strictly wholesale for another dozen years, but began to notice that there were advantages to the economies of retail chain store operations. The Victory Chain Inc. was organized in 1921 and the first store was opened in May in Cazenovia. Four stores were opened in 1922, and by the early 1950s the stores were distributed among 125 cities and villages throughout 21 counties in New York state.
The early years saw each of these stores operating as neighborhood markets. Victory had a few stores within the Oneonta city limits. Some were established this way, but a few were taken over from independent grocers wanting to retire or get out of the business.
In 1928, Dunne retired as an active officer in the business. He died in 1947. The business continued to grow and change under the leadership of Charles A. Smith.
It wasn't until after World War II that Victory and other chain stores began to get larger and more modern. A newspaper clipping from The Norwich Sun in March 1950 announced that the newly renovated North Broad Street Victory was now, "the most modern and complete grocery store in Norwich." There was the introduction of a "Spee-Dee" checkout counter, claimed to be the first of its kind in the state. The store adopted a brighter interior with blue and gleaming white. Self-service dairy cases were introduced.
Victory Markets remained one of the principal food distributors in upstate New York. The company shipped some 250 tons of meat and fresh produce and 500 tons of dry goods weekly. Some may recall the colorful labels on some of the food products. The "Supreme Court" label featured the Chenango County Courthouse in the artwork. "Norwich" brand was another label.
Victory expanded in the 1970s, operating both Great American and Victory Markets. By 1976 the company employed 400 in its corporate offices in Norwich and 2,200 people across the chain. Carl's Drugs was added to the company in 1988. They acquired the Shop Rite supermarkets in the Capital District the same year.
Business changed drastically in the early 1990s. In November 1992, employees were told the company headquarters was re-locating to Utica, which meant a loss of 500 jobs in Norwich. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1995.
By 1997 the former East Main Street headquarters and warehouses were demolished to make way for a shopping center, ironically anchored by a Tops Food Market, more recently having become a P&C Supermarket.
There are still a few Great American stores remaining in the region, but they are privately owned and operated. There were also several Victory Markets, of no relation to Norwich, found in Eastern Massachusetts until 2004, when Hannaford acquired them.
On Monday: We'll explore a couple of interesting firsts and lasts about Oneonta.
City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com.