James E. Greeley was quite a man. The front page of the April 4, 1946 Andover Townsman has a full-page picture of him wearing a butcher's apron and boater and sawing a piece of meat. I never met him, he was a little before my memory, but Mr. Greeley was well-known, well-respected and well-liked. In the picture he is 76 years old and there's a caption under it that says, "a firm hand - a firm mind." The occasion for the picture was his retirement; he was leaving the largest independent retail grocery business in the Merrimack Valley, a business he started from scratch 30 years earlier.
Inside the Townsman is a full-page story devoted to "Jim" Greeley, as he was known to his friends, and a half page editorial. With the full-page story is a second picture of Greeley, a formal one with him wearing a dark suit and nice tie; his mustache is neat, as is his carefully-barbered, combed-back hair. He looks like the successful businessman he was. There is such a dichotomy between the two Greeley pictures that it looks like two different men. He was so well-known the Townsman didn't feel the need to put his name under either picture, and the stories in the paper are such good ones that, more than 60 years later, I can't help admiring and liking Mr. Greeley.
Betty Boudreau sent me this Townsman, because her husband, Ted Boudreau, as a young boy, did odd jobs for Mr. Greeley, and, when older, Ted delivered groceries for him. (Mr. Boudreau became a teacher, coach, and mentor to thousands of Andover's youth, and two columns about him can be found at my website, AndoverTownie.com. At his funeral, I gave one of the eulogies for this beloved man.)
Greeley was born in Lowell in 1870, where his mother owned a grocery store, and Jim learned the grocery business and how to cut meat from her. His family moved to Nashville, Tenn. where he worked in the stockyards and packing houses, all the while saving money. In 1916, Greeley moved to Andover and opened a business called the Rockport Fish Market in the building owned by John H. Campion located on Elm Square at the intersections of Main, Essex, and Central streets. In less than a year he expanded the business by selling meat and poultry. Since J.H. Campion & Co. sold produce and related items, Mr. Greeley sold only fish, fowl and meat.
Before 1930, Greeley changed the name of the Rockport Market to "James E. Greeley, Co.," and in 1937, he purchased the J.H. Campion & Co. store, which allowed him to expand his business by adding produce. To quote the Townsman, "A customer could now do all her shopping without leaving the store." At the peak of his business, Greeley employed 28 people.
Mr. Greeley told the Townsman two of his favorite stories when recalling 30 years in business. One Saturday afternoon he had many orders to deliver, and none of his five trucks were anywhere to be found. On a hunch, he went to the Playstead, where Punchard was playing football. All of the trucks were in the parking lot. In those days, all Punchard home games drew big crowds and the stands were packed. Somewhere in the mob were all five of his drivers. Greeley managed to hail one of them. As the Townsman said, "Word travels fast by the back fence, and by the time [Greeley] returned to the store all five trucks were parked innocently out front."
Mr. Greeley recalled another football related story involving an important Phillips Academy game. On game day morning he said to one of the Academy professors, "If Andover wins, I'll provide all the wood that's needed for a bonfire." Toward evening, after a Phillips victory, 200 students marched to the store to pick up the wood. Greeley gave them each a fish barrel, and soon the fish-scented barrels were being rolled up the hill to PA. One can only imagine the odor that permeated the air that evening.
Was there a secret to Mr. Greeley's success? Probably not. It seems to me that it was a time tested formula: hard work, attention to detail, and good customer service. When the store was open, he was there. The day before he retired, a female reporter from the Townsman interviewed him. Greeley said, "No two customers cook or serve meats in exactly the same way, and so we've tried, whenever possible, to cut each individual quarter as it was requested. You know, little lady, a butcher is sometimes closer to the people he serves than the doctor or even a minister, because the average person visits the butcher twice sometimes three times a week." The reporter noted that, as he spoke, "Greeley's eyes were bright with the friendliness that he felt for each of his customers." The reporter finished her story by saying, "To see the many notes, flowers, and visitors that he is receiving at his Summer Street home since his retirement is to know that a mutual feeling of friendship exists among the many people who have been served by Jim Greeley." (Mr. Greeley lived with his daughter, Anna, at 7 Summer St.)
Immediately following his retirement, according to the Townsman, "Mr. Greeley and his daughter, Attorney Anna Greeley, will drive to Hot Springs, where they will stay for a few weeks while Mr. Greeley takes treatment and a deserved rest. From there they will travel across the country to the West Coast, and they will visit many of Mr. Greeley's friends still in the food business whom he met while attending national conventions."
The business was taken over by three long-term Greeley employees: Mary C. Connor, William J. Scanlon, and Francis T. Kelly, who took out a quarter page advertisement in the Townsman that thanked Mr. Greeley "... For the opportunity of carrying on his business." From the ad, it appears that the name of the business reverted to "The Rockport Market" upon Greeley's retirement.
The editorial in the Townsman mentions that Mr. Greeley hoped to get the "OPA poison" out of his system while at hot springs. The OPA was the Office of Price administration that was created during World War II to control inflation and ration commodities, including meat and groceries. It froze prices at March 1942 levels until 1947, two years after the war ended. This was tough on business, and by the time Mr. Greeley retired the number of his employees had dropped to 15.
Anna Greeley was the treasurer of her father's business, and she later became town treasurer (1956 to 1972). She served on the School Committee in the early 1950s and practiced law in Andover for 16 years.
Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His e-mail address is BillDalton@AndoverTownie.com. The above column updates one that appeared in the Andover Townsman in 2007.