Atkins Farms Country Market is both a popular and modern, specialty food retail store of today combined with an old fashioned country market of yesteryear. There is a history of many years of farming in South Amherst that preceded the construction of the present retail establishment. In 1887 George H. Atkins moved to the area and set out a small orchard including 13 trees of a new apple variety called the “McIntosh.” During the years that followed, George Atkins, and his son William, purchased more land and planted more trees, which by 1948 totaled over 2,000. All of the apple production at that time was sold wholesale; some went to Holyoke and the balance to New York City.
The very first retail building built at this location was started in June of 1962. The building would have been built the prior year, right after Howard Atkins purchased the land from Mr. Critchett, but when the 1961 crop of apples froze, he delayed the construction for another year. When the 1962 crop of apples made it safely past the frost season, Howard put the building plans back into action. The steel-framed, one-story building , with five overhead garage doors installed (to allow trucks to be driven in for the winter months), cost almost twice the original estimate of $8000. The building was ready early in August, but Howard was not. Afraid that no one would show up for the opening day, Howard had his wife, Ruth, oversee the opening while he busied himself packing apples at the storage facility. The opening was a success and Howard was kept busy that day sorting peaches and apples for the retail business.
The Atkins Farms apple-growing business was started in 1887, when Howard's grandfather came to South Amherst and planted the first McIntosh trees. The orchards were expanded over the years but the Atkins sold most of their apples wholesale, all just within a radius of 100 miles of the orchards. In the 1950s, Howard started selling apples out of the garage near the family home, and then from the cold-storage building and cider mill he built on South East Street.
When I came to work for Howard Atkins in 1963, my oldest son, Mike, was not yet a year old. Now that puts things in a different perspective for me! In the 60's we worked out of an office in Howard's home on South East Street, where Mike often came to work with me. In those years, Howard was busy running the farms (both the orchard and dairy farm), working as an Eastern States Representative, and getting a feel for the retail business. He would record personal radio station ads and place newspaper ads in the Holyoke Transcript. However, the advertising job soon was delegated to me as Howard concentrated on his other responsibilities.
The retail business soon showed promise, and we could see a need for more and earlier varieties of apples for the increasing number of customers. In 1964, one hundred and fifty acres of land was purchased in Belchertown. The higher elevation of this land would help to assure us of an annual crop of quality apples by escaping more of the spring frosts. At the same time, several of the Amherst orchards were getting closed in by a booming housing growth in Amherst. The land in Belchertown was ideal. More land was purchased and was cleared of woods and stone walls. Twenty years later there were over 200 acres of dwarf and semi-dwarf apple, peach and pear trees covering the land.
As the retail business grew, new products were carefully and slowly added. Produce was purchased from local farmers and then from the market during the winter months. I can remember the first peanut butter machine and the first oven we bought to bake pies. Prior to that, we had purchased pies from a home baker in Belchertown. Maple syrup, honey and jams and jellies were added to our product list. Not only did we grow in farm acreage and retail business during the late 60s and early 70s but, more importantly, we grew with very valuable and vital new associates. In 1969, Harold Gould (now deceased) came to work for Atkins. He had previously been employed with Agway, but came to work on the farm with Howard. Harold soon became an indispensable part of the retail business, and has remained so through the years. Also in 1969, the retail business was incorporated and was outgrowing the original building.
In 1970, Sam Anderson, owner of the Bay Road Fruit Stand across from the Atkins store, put his business up for sale and we purchased it that same year. In 1972, a major renovation transformed the original white, steel-beamed Atkins Fruit Bowl into a large, redwood, California style showplace. Before the renovation was quite done, David Thornton, previous comptroller, started working for us. David worked getting carts and bagging when he was just fifteen, and worked part-time through high school and then full-time when in college. Upon graduation from college, he was promoted to assistant manager.
After the addition/renovation was completed, the two retail roadside stand businesses were combined, and we then had an extensive selection of fresh produce in addition to our own apples, peaches and pears. We also added four new and valuable employees from the Bay Road Fruit Stand; Andy Tulenko (now deceased), John (now retired) and Paul Kosloski and Net Horne (now deceased). Andy was the key in moving the produce business from Anderson's to Atkins, and was produce manager for several years. John is the former produce manager and Paul is assistant produce manager. The 1972 renovation gave us room to bake more pies, and we started making the first cider donuts.
As the orchards in Belchertown produced more, a new storage and packing house was needed. This was constructed in 1977 and accommodated 90,000 bushels of apples, the wholesale office and a new cider mill. The apples raised by the farm at that time were sold about 80% wholesale and 20% through our retail store. Also, the farm was producing over 100,000 gallons of cider in a year. Both apples and cider were sold throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.
In 1977, the greenhouse area was added on to the retail building, and in 1980, a full line bakery kitchen was added. We were then able to make our own pies in addition to many new bakery products, including cakes, pastries, muffins, donuts, breads, rolls and coffee cakes. As we watched thousands of customers pass through our doors each day, Howard knew how foolish he had been to worry about whether anyone would show up that first day in 1962. In 1987, another major player on the Atkins team was hired. Paul Hodgkins, (now retired) part-owner and assistant manager, says he came to work at Atkins about the time when we down-sized the greenhouse business and moved our one 8-foot deli case out to the greenhouse area. At the same time we added a larger cheese case, a salad bar and more specialty foods.
Fortunately, Howard was still with us to help oversee our next major renovation and addition in 1995, when we doubled the size of our building to 25,000 square feet. The skeleton of the original building was incorporated into this renovation where the bakery sales area of the store now is. Howard was very proud, rightfully so, when that renovation was completed and over the next two years he was able to see the many positive results. In contrast, the wholesaling of apples became depressed as new orchards began producing an abundance of fruit. Most years, the wholesale price for apples didn't cover our expense of growing them. Therfore, we have made several U-turns in the production of apples, from the original all-wholesale production when the farm first started in the late 1800s, to mostly retail until the newer orchards planted in the 1960s began to produce enough apples for wholesale and then back to our present position of growing apples primarily for the store. From over 200 acres of apples, we now grow fruit on 60 acres in both Belchertown our Peach-Berry Hill orchards off Bay Road. We look at this change as streamlining our production so that we are more efficient and we can concentrate on growing the best quality fruit for our own store.
We have always maintained that we have eyes for the future and it is true. We try to plan ahead to keep up with customer demand and to keep up with our growth. In order to do that, we once again renovated and added on to our store in 2002-2004. Much of the addition is work area and storage, but we also rearranged cases on the retail floor, freeing up the area around the deli, adding more cases for meat, seafood, prepared and partially prepared foods. We also have a larger area for what we call 'convenience items', such as baking ingredients, canned goods, paper goods and pet foods.
Over the years, our lives here have changed as we adjust to the loss of family and friends. We also gain new family and friends, and delight in their being a part of our lives. And as I speak of the past history of Atkins Farms and the growth of the retail store, Howard Atkins is upper most in my mind. Much of our success is due to his energy and enthusiasm, his encouragement and faith in others. As we said in our rememberance of Howard when he passed away in 1997, he was ...Our Friend, Leader, Mentor, Sponsor, Founder, and Role Model. He was what we needed and when we needed it. Compassionate, Inspirational, Dedicated, Concerned, Thrifty, Organized, A Smart Problem Solver, Uplifting, Analytical, Encouraging and Honest.