During the 1800s, Syrians and Armenians were among the French Canadian, Irish and Italian immigrants who settled in the Merrimack Valley. Many found work on area farms and in local woolen mills. Sarkis Colombosian and his wife, Rose, came from Armenia in 1922. His parents gave them a milk route as their wedding present. They called the goat and cow farm they settled the Wild Rose Dairy.
“We were just a farm in an old neighborhood. Andover was small and nothing but dirt roads and farms back then,” Sarkis’ son Bob recalled. When the farm began producing more milk than they could sell or use for themselves, they made yogurt and sold it along their milk route.
Founded in Andover in 1929, Colombo & Sons Creamery would provide many Americans their first taste of yogurt. Early batches were cooked over a wood stove using Rose's traditional Armenian recipe. Sarkis and his sons, Bob and John, filled eight-ounce glass jars by hand and delivered them, first by horse-drawn wagon and later, by pick-up truck. The original route sold to neighbors and local grocery stores in Lawrence and Boston.
Fire damaged the Colombosian's farm in 1939. Soon after, a new house with expanded production capacity was built on Argilla Road. By 1940, the company was distributing their yogurt throughout New England. As the health benefits of yogurt became more widely known over the following decade, the industry boomed.
Sarkis Colombosian died in 1966. Bob and John stepped in and ran the business. By 1971, Colombo ranked fourth in the nation behind Yoplait, Dannon and Breyers. It was the best-selling plain yogurt in America. Colombo established itself, too, as the largest player in the burgeoning frozen yogurt market. To keep up with demand, they built a much larger production facility in Methuen.
Strong industry growth, however, quickly introduced new competitors with deep pockets. The company realized it didn’t have the capital to compete.
“I didn’t have enough money to keep (the business) in the family. I decided to sell it so the business could grow," Bob reflected.
Eventually the company was sold to a French concern in 1977 and then to General Mills in 1993. General Mills halted production of Colombo yogurt in 2010 in order to concentrate on its Yoplait brand. Then 84 years old, Bob Colombosian was saddened by the decision, saying that “it was the worst thing … to drop the brand, the oldest in the United States. It is a big part of my life,” he said. “It is all of it, really”.
Bob passed away in April last year leaving a wide and enduring footprint. Beyond waking up the country’s collective appetite, putting Colombo products on our supermarket dairy shelves and launching what today is an $80 billion industry worldwide, he developed several other successful enterprises.
Bob was also a renowned modified sports car driver competing at raceways throughout the Northeast United States and Eastern Canada. Bob’s racing accomplishments included a Top 10 finish at the prestigious 1960 Watkins Glen Grand Prix and reigning for many years as the New England champion.
In his heart, Bob believed fervently in giving back to the community and spent much of his lifetime doing so. Bob served his church and volunteered for 15 years at Lawrence General Hospital, retiring on his 90th birthday. He was a generous Bentley University benefactor and supported several Armenian causes. Fittingly, in 2004 Bob received a proclamation by Gov. Mitt Romney, was recognized by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and was awarded a key to the town of Andover for his many civic contributions.
The Colombosian family grave monument is located in Spring Grove Cemetery, never far from the business they nurtured, grew and loved.