After 130 years, Barbour’s changes hands, but that’s all

New proprietor vows to keep family formula

Barbour's Farm Market on Washington Street in Newton, shown in 1948, was owned and operated by the Barbour family for almost 130 years. Barbour's Farm Market on Washington Street in Newton, shown in 1948, was owned and operated by the Barbour family for almost 130 years. (Charles Barbour)
By Kathleen Moore
Globe Correspondent / September 24, 2009

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Recessions come, recessions go. But Bob Barbour has noticed that the demand for hardy mums, evergreen wreaths, and blushing hydrangeas seems to ignore leading economic indicators. You could call it the “flower factor’’ - people like their greenery - but Bob Barbour thinks it’s more than that.

“It’s a tradition,’’ says the longtime proprietor of Barbour’s Farm Market on Washington Street in Newton. “People like going to the neighborhood market, and we like seeing them. We had one family that would come to the store with a sled or a wagon every Christmas Eve at 7 o’clock. We knew they were coming and we’d hold back a good tree for them. They’d haul it back up the hill, singing Christmas carols the whole way. Started way back with the grandparents, then their kids, and then their kids’ kids.’’

He has no doubt that Barbour’s Farm Market will continue to foster other neighborhood traditions. He regrets that he won’t be there to watch them evolve, however.

On Sept. 15, Barbour signed over control of the company to a local businessman, ending almost 130 years of family proprietorship. Though painful, the decision was nonnegotiable for Barbour, 60, who learned in June that he would become totally blind within the year.

He waves off any sympathy for his declining vision - he’s been battling it for years - but handing over the keys to the Newton store, the last of 14 that once dotted the Boston area, this brings him to tears.

“My great-grandfather Luigi started with a cart that he used to push around Newton in the late 1800s,’’ he says. “I grew up working in this place - watched them build the Mass. Pike from the sidewalk. My kids grew up here. Last year I had my grandson work here. That’s six generations.’’

The new proprietor, Newton resident Jimmy Feller, is a savvy businessman. He does not plan to change a thing - including the name - when he reopens the store sometime around Oct. 1.

“I’ll be selling pumpkins, mums, cider - all the same seasonal things as Bob sold - and I will see what else customers want me to sell,’’ Feller said as he signed the agreement last week.

“Part of the appeal of leasing the store was how much a part of the community it is. I live in Newton now, too, and I’ll be serving people who will be my neighbors and, hopefully, my friends,’’ he said.

“I’d like to think my family could run it for another 130 years.’’

He may attain financial success at the Washington Street store, but Feller will be hard-pressed to have as much fun as his predecessors. That, says Barbour, is a family tradition.

“I remember having a great time when I was 6, tagging along with my father when he went in to Quincy Market to buy vegetables. He’d get me up at 3 a.m., but I didn’t mind. It was an adventure. Along the way, we’d stop at the Landmark Café, where my father would meet up with friends and get a double Screwdriver - he called it his ‘eye-opener.’ I got to eat hot dogs for breakfast and watch all of the men making deals.’’

The Barbours enjoyed their life because they truly enjoyed work - and each other. There was plenty of both to go around. In its heyday, the family owned two farms, one in Needham and another in Billerica, and 14 farm stands. In addition to their own eight children, Luigi and Anna Barbour could depend on dozens of grandchildren and other relatives to help out. Bob’s grandfather, Herberto Augustus, contributed 12 children, some adopted. His father, Charles, brought three to the stand - Charles, Bob, and Donna. Everyone worked. And no one complained.

“Every year, after Halloween, we closed the store for a month and everybody made holly wreaths. If you’ve ever handled a holly leaf you know they’re like razor blades. Never got out of that without a few cuts,’’ Barbour says. “But I never got out of making them, either.’’

It wasn’t all work, of course. In December, when the stand was overrun by Christmas trees, a young Bob Barbour would build forts out back. There, he would stage snowball fights with visiting kids while their parents were up front buying trees.

“The kids I used to play with back then have came back to buy trees with their grandkids,’’ he says. “It’s a nice memory of how things were.’’

Barbour rolls his eyes at some of the complications that have cropped up since then.

Bonfires are not allowed. Police now ticket customers who take U-turns in front of his store. And then there’s the cider . . .

“Unpasteurized cider? We sold it for a hundred years and no one got sick, but now you can’t do that,’’ he says, shaking his head. “When it went hard, we called it apple jack, and we sold that, too. Can’t do that anymore . . . but boy, I’ll never forget how those prim and proper little old ladies used to come over from the other side of Newton to buy five bottles of apple jack so they could go home and get smashed. Now that was funny.’’

The market has had its share of celebrity sightings - media mogul Sumner Redstone used to buy geraniums, and comedian Conan O’Brien, who grew up in Brookline, would drop in when he was visiting a nearby auto dealership - but Barbour is more impressed by the familiar faces that came in every day. For his family, customers were the real celebrities. And everybody was family.

“There were a couple of families in town that had 12 kids, and they didn’t have much. My father knew who they were, and, every Saturday, he’d close the store at 4 and invite them over to take whatever they could. He didn’t tell anyone about it, but we all knew,’’ Barbour says. “My father always said if you are making it, and you have a good life, you’ve got to give some back.’’

Remembering this adage hasn’t always been easy. Bob Barbour has been run over twice by hit-and-run drivers, afflicted by adult-onset scarlet fever, and lost a toe in a lawnmower mishap.

On a daily basis, he suffers excruciating pain in his arms, legs, and hands from diabetic neuropathy, and his kidneys are not looking so good either.

Still, he laughs.

“I agree with those people who say ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ Only I’d add another piece to that,’’ he says. “Sell the lemonade so you can buy a vegetable stand. Then you’re in business.’’

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