Raised on oatmeal and catechism to establish US supermarket chain

The main story here today, e-mailed from Canada by Ballycastle-born regular contributor Mitchell Smyth, is about one of the many memorable Ulster folk who left Northern Ireland and plugged into history in far-away places.

Tuesday, 15th October 2019, 11:42 am
Samuel Robinson from Ballymoney built a supermarket empire in America

But first, thanks to an eagle-eyed News Letter reader, let’s return for a moment to last Wednesday’s account of Tourism NI’s ongoing ‘Taste the Island’ celebration of local food and drink.

I mentioned Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s lines, etched on the doors of the lift outside a cookery demonstration in the Elk restaurant complex near Lough Neagh.

Our internationally-renowned poet’s words, from his poem ‘Bogland’, adorned the lift’s doors beneath the title of the poem and an etching of a hand clasping a quill.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

An Acme supermarket n New Jersey

“The hand as shown on the doors,” a reader’s e-mail pointed out “is that of a left-handed person” - correctly observed!

“But to the best of my knowledge,” added the e-mailer “Seamus Heaney was right-handed, at least it seems to be so in photographs of him signing his books.”

Astounded at both the reader’s literary awareness and sharp eyesight, I checked this out on a number of newspaper cuttings and it’s true, unless Heaney was ambidextrous!

Three or four portraits show him at his desk, with a pen in his right hand, and similarly at several book-signing sessions, one in Poland in 1996.

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaneys poem on the doors of the Elk's lift.

I don’t know which hand Northern Ireland’s historic chain-store magnate Samuel Robinson wrote with, but Mitchell Smyth told me about his origins and business successes.

“To Samuel Robinson with a mother’s blessing - Proverbs 3: 5-6.”

These words were written on the flyleaf of a Bible given to young Sam when he left Ballymoney for America in 1888.

The full blessing read: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways ask Him and He shall direct your path.”

A Blue Plaque marks where young Samuel Robinson worked in a grocery store at Main Street, Ballymoney

His mother had told him to read the Bible daily, which he did for the rest of his life, keeping it in his office desk and reading a portion at the start of work every morning. He expressly believed the exhortation “ask Him and He shall direct your path.”

That path led Samuel Robinson to become a tycoon in the grocery trade, building a single shop in Philadelphia into an empire - the American Stores Company/Acme Markets - which currently runs 3,300 supermarkets in 38 states.

There’s a blue plaque on a wall in Main Street, Ballymoney, recording that Robinson worked in a grocery store there (now demolished) before leaving on an emigrant ship from Londonderry at the age of 23.

And on Newal Road there’s a more concrete reminder - the Robinson Memorial Hospital, which he gifted to the town.

It was built, in 1933, and fully equipped, all paid for by Samuel Robinson and dedicated in memory of his late parents. He continued to endow ‘the Robinson’ richly until it was taken over by the NHS after WWII. The 25-bed hospital is now an in-patient rehabilitation facility.

Samuel Robinson was born at Culcrum, County Antrim, in 1865, to Samuel and Margaret Robinson, a strict Ulster-Scots Presbyterian family. He would later say he was raised on “oatmeal and the Shorter Catechism.”

At the age of 17, he was apprenticed to his uncle, William John Megaw, who ran a grocery and coal shop where the plaque is erected in Ballymoney.

Aged 23 he emigrated to America and worked in a Philadelphia grocery store, for up to 80 hours a week. His take-home pay was $15 a week.

After paying his rent he saved the rest, scorning (as he later said) frivolities like “minstrel shows, vaudevilles and penny arcades.”

The Ulster-Scot Presbyterian work ethic hung heavily on young Sam Robinson.

He put his savings to good use and within three years he and a Ballymoney friend, Robert Crawford, opened their own small neighbourhood grocery in south Philadelphia.

By the time Sam turned 30 in 1895 they owned three shops, opening another nearly every year until 1904 under the slogan ‘The House that Quality Built.’They were on a roll!

Supermarkets had arrived and the partners made sure they were in on the ground floor.

They introduced self-service with grocery carts for the customers and bought adjacent land for customer parking - first horse-and-buggies and then automobiles.

By 1917, through mergers, they owned 1,223 properties, called American Stores, which later merged with the giant Acme Markets, with Samuel Robinson as president.

After endowing the Ballymoney hospital he established The Samuel Robinson Award, an annual bursary that gives cash rewards to students at Presbyterian colleges and seminaries in the United States to assist with their tuition.

To qualify, students have to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism, recite it and write a 2,000-word essay about it.

Winners receive between $2,500 and $7,500. Samuel Robinson, the Ballymoney philanthropist, married in 1911, at the age of 46. He died on 6 October 1958.

One obituary said: “Samuel Robinson always remembered and loved his home in County Antrim and retained strong connections throughout his life. Many of the staff at his 44-room mansion, Glencoe House (in Philadelphia) were from Ulster and he retained his accent throughout his life.”

When news of his death reached Ballymoney, prayers were said in all the local churches.

A full, evocatively illustrated history of the Robinson Memorial Hospital entitled ‘One Man’s Gift’ was written in 1999 by the late S. Alexander Blair.