The Oldest
Family Businesses
in America
By William T. O'Hara
IF SOMEONE WERE TO ASK YOU how long the world’s oldest family business has been going strong, what would you reply?  Maybe a century and a half? Perhaps two?

Incredibly, Japan’s Hoshi Hotel has been functioning on all cylinders as a family business since 718AD.  The Hoshi family is in its 49th generation with no end in sight, while a few relative youngsters on the other side of the globe date their founding and continuous family ownership to a time well before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.   The venerable Venetian glassmakers, Barovier & Toso, were established in 1295.  A Tuscan winemaker, the famous Antinori dynasty, has been producing its vintages since 1385.  World renowned firearm manufacturers, the Beretta family, has been crafting  guns in Italy for kings and sportsmen since 1526, and the oldest family firm in the United Kingdom, textile makers John Brooke & Sons, Ltd. – has been in business since 1541.

New World family businesses cannot, of course, claim any such antiquity.  However, the Institute for Family Enterprise (IFE) at Bryant College thought it would be interesting to take a look at the relative longevity of businesses started and run by families in the USA.  We made some interesting discoveries along the way, which, combined with the accompanying list, provide a profile attesting to the rich history of American family businesses.

Our project was launched in 1997.  After making preliminary inquiries, we realized that the qualifying definition for our survey was in need of refinement.  Family business locations prompted one of our initial questions.  Should a family enterprise that relocated to another state be allowed to qualify as the oldest business in the new state? We decided that, in order to maintain the true historical context of the search,  we would say no to this possibility and require that our “oldest family businesses” be no more and no less than the family enterprises that have lasted longest in the states in which they were founded. For example, in Massachusetts, Zildjian Cymbal happened to have been founded in Constantinople, Turkey in 1623, long before it relocated to Norwell, Massachusetts in 1929.  So even though it was recognized by the Wall Street Journal as the oldest family business in the USA, this excellent company didn’t make the cut in our study.

A second issue involved our decision to include public corporations.  Considering that 40% of Fortune 500 companies are family businesses, we decided that any public corporation that met all the other criteria of the study would qualify so long as family members retained meaningful input regarding the firm’s operations.

Finally, we chose to include family farms among our oldest enterprises.  Agriculture is a business, it was decided, like any other enterprise.  In all, 13 of the 52 businesses listed are farm-related, including  two ranches –  Glaser Land & Livestock (Nevada) [1869], and Penner Angus Ranch (Oklahoma) [1855], and one dairy farm – Coleman Dairy (Arkansas) [1862].

In sum, the project's definition of a family business was: "An enterprise that has been in the control of a single family since inception.  It can be either private or public, so long as family members have an input in the operation and future of the business.  Furthermore, the enterprise must currently be located in the state in which it originated."

Since most family firms are privately held, and the well-known business indexes such as Standard & Poor's only list public companies, finding information about family businesses is always a challenge. Many sources provided us with critical assistance, and we are grateful to them all.  Our joumey started with inquiries to historical societies, economic development offices, and Chambers of Commerce in each of the 50 states.  Academics from around the country who are members of the Family Firm Institute, based in Boston, responded with great interest and cooperation.  Newspapers, especially regional business journals, offered good leads and invaluable historical perspective concerning the oldest businesses in their circulation areas. And, of course, the Internet proved a fruitful resource in finding possibilities.

In the end, we merged the input from all these sources, and verified our information with each business directly. The result was a list of the oldest, ongoing family business in each of the 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Twists of fate
As might be expected, the age differences between the oldest family businesses in the various states reflect the dates of settlement of the East, Midwest, and Far West.  Generally, the oldest business in a young state has not been around nearly as long as the oldest in an old state.  There are some interesting aberrations, nevertheless.  The oldest ongoing family enterprises in several Western states preceded statehood.  We were also puzzled that the longest lasting family business we could find in New York, G.H. Peters Inc. of Buffalo, reached back only to 1825.  It would have come out differently, we discovered, if wine importer Schieffelin & Co. of New York City (1781) had not been sold in 1988.

We found one forerunner of statehood in Rhode Island.  The John Stevens Shop in Newport has been in the gravestone business since 1705.  It was run by eight generations of Stevenses until 1926 when it was purchased by John Howard Benson.  The Benson family, now in its third generation, continues the tradition that has carved markers for John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Robert F. Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, and more recently, a monument for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. The fact that ownership did not reside in a single family disqualified it under the survey's definition, however.  Ashaway Line & Twine Manufacturing Co. (1824), therefore, is Rhode Island's oldest continuing family business.

Fate has played a fascinating role in the establishment and survival of many of the enterprises.  Twenty-seven year old E. R. Jaeger, who hailed from Eureka, Wisconsin, followed his brother west to Tacoma, Washington, at the end of the 19th century, where he worked in his brother's laundry.  In the fall of 1894, he decided to go out on his own.  His destination was going to be either Alaska or Hawaii.  He flipped a coin, and Alaska won.  The Alaska Laundry Co. continues in the family and was fortunate enough to celebrate its centennial four years ago in Juneau.  Jaeger's coin flip left the field open for Servco Pacific, a diversified company founded in 1919, to become the oldest family business in Hawaii.

The rush west to find gold was closely followed by an army of entrepreneurs, and prompted the beginning of some unexpected family business dynasties. Levi Strauss & Co. was there to outfit the 49ers in California, and their blue jeans eventually became a cultural symbol rivaled only by Coca-Cola.

Mathias Glaser, a German immigrant, would never attain Strauss's worldwide fame, but his business was fated to become nearly as successful.  After boarding a covered wagon in St. Louis in 1852, he eventually stopped in Nevada and began to supply mining equipment to settlers and trading posts across the Carson Valley and the booming mining camps of Gold Hill and Virginia City.  Glaser grew to like the Nevada Territory so well that he settled there and began to build his dream.  Today, Glaser Land & Livestock utilizes over 600,000 acres of land, and according to Mathias's descendant, Norman Glaser, "the ranch is not only the oldest in Nevada, but is bigger than the state of Rhode Island when the tide is out."

Last but not least in the twist-of-fate department is Tuttle Market Gardens. Founder John Tuttle set sail from Bristol, England, with his wife and four-year-old daughter on June 4, 1635, on the "Angel Gabriel" headed for New England.  The Gabriel's first stop was at Pemaquid Point, Maine, to drop off supplies for a small settlement there before heading south.  During the night, a hurricane struck, destroying the ship and its supplies.  The Tuttles continued their journey on foot and settled at Dover Point, New Hampshire, where, as they say, the rest is history.  The Tuttle Farm was established on or before 1640 and has continued its family operation for more than 350 years.

Oldest of the old
As the survey progressed, we were, of course, eager to learn which is the oldest existing family business in America.  The answer seemed easy: the C.P. Washburn Company (1632) of Middleborough, Massachusetts.  Then came the crushing news: on November 1, 1998, The Boston Globe reported the company's untimely demise.  Charles P. Washburn IV, a member of the 11th generation, was apparently unable to pay $120,000 in back taxes and the town closed the company's doors, bringing an end to a noble family business that got its start as a granary in nearby Duxbury, long before this country became a nation.

Thus, according to our research, Tuttle Market Gardens inherits Washburn's mantle as America's oldest ongoing family business.  Tuttle grows vegetables and strawberries, and operates a retail shop on its site.  Other East Coast farms were early contemporaries of Tuttle: The Barker Farm (Massachusetts, 1642), the Miller Farm (Delaware, 1684), and the Lyman Farm (Connecticut, 1741) were working to feed colonial soldiers during the Revolutionary War.

Family businesses from colonial times are certainly not all agricultural.  The Laird family of New Jersey was the first large-scale distiller in America, making applejack brandy as far back as the early 1700s.  A Virginia farmer named George Washington wrote to the family around 1760 to request the recipe.  The beverage became so popular that by 1780 the Lairds had established a commercial distillery, Laird & Co., that has continued to operate ever since.  The distillery even continued during Prohibition when it produced brandy for medicinal purposes.

In 1785, after serving in the Revolutionary War, Christian Bixler III began making clocks in Easton, Pennsylvania, having purchased a piece of property there from John Penn, son of William Penn, for 38 pounds and change.  Bixler began making tall-case time pieces, and handcrafted 465 exquisite clocks between 1785 and 1812.  Today his company bears the sign "America's Oldest Jewelers and Silversmiths."

Several name-brand family firms other than Levi Strauss have survived competition and overcome obstacles within their families to achieve not only longevity but national and, in some instances, worldwide recognition.  The rich French menus at Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans have been delighting diners since 1840.  A beer-making family from Michigan, the Strohs, kickstarted its brewing vats back in 1850, and a thousand miles away and 23 years later, Adolph Coors began brewing his own beer in Colorado.

Supplying the basics
Etna M. Kelley, the noted business historian, once observed, "...for reasons unknown, funeral homes and seed companies - symbolic of death and life - seem to last a long time." Ms. Kelley wisely observed that business responds to basic needs.  Her book, the "Business Founding Date Directory," which records business start-ups in America (subsequently called the United States!) from 1687 to 1915, was an inspiration and source of leads for our study.

Family firms tend to dominate in certain industries, and we found a historical basis for the highly familial funeral business.  Having grown up in New Haven, Connecticut, it seemed to me that all of the funeral homes bore a family name and had an ethnic connection.  At an early age, one learned that it was just not proper to bury an Irish-Catholic "O'Hara" using a Protestant funeral home, or even one that catered to the city's large Italian-Catholic population.

Funeral homes have held an important place in the social and religious rituals of our nation, and family owned funeral parlors have shown remarkable endurance over the years.  Although no longer a family firm, Kirk & Nice of Philadelphia maintained its operations in a single location from 1761 until 1993, when a ninth-generation, childless Kirk descendant, J. Malcolm Henderson, sold the business.  Kirk coffins were used to bury Revolutionary War soldiers killed in the 1777 Battle of Germantown Pennsylvania.

Almost as old, and still functioning as a family business, is the Rogers Funeral Home in Frankfurt, Kentucky.  Started in 1802, it is in its sixth generation.  Next door in Indiana, Gardner & Son Funeral Home has been operating since the state came into the Union in 1816.  Other notable funeral homes include Holman's Funeral Service in Oregon (1854), Davis Funeral Chapel in Kansas (1855), and J. Henry Stuhr Inc. in South Carolina (1865).

The oldest seed company recorded in Kelley's business directory is D. Landreth Seed Co., established in Philadelphia in 1784 but later moved to Baltimore.  Among the other earliest companies listed in the book were several in basic industries including banking, manufacturing, retailing, wholesaling, railroads, utilities, newspapers, magazine and book publishers, and trade associations. Our study confirms many of these listings.  It again and again reflects business activities that are related to daily living: Food, spirits, construction, information (news), adornment (clothes and jewelry), burials, and music are well represented.

St. John Milling Co. (1778) was the oldest continuing family food-maker we could find.  Located in Watauga, Tennessee, an area known as "The Bread Basket of the Southeast," its operation has changed from a feed and milling business to one specializing in a variety of farm needs.  George Ruhl & Sons (1789) of Maryland, a bakery supply house, is equally well known for its ability to reinvent itself.  Conrad Ruhl began a flour and feed mill in 1789.  Over the years its continuity was often in jeopardy.  It had to survive Baltimore's Great Fire in 1904. (Disaster was avoided by tossing flour barrels into the harbor.) In 1915, as cars began to replace horses, the company abandoned its feed business and continued to phase into sugar and other baking supplies; today it is a robust business providing an extraordinary range of baking products.  Pioneer Flour Mills in (Texas, 1851) and the Holsum Bakery in (Arizona, 1884) are other providers of essentials.

The Delaware Gazette of Delaware, Ohio (1834), is one of the entries on the list linked most closely to famous historical figures.  During his early days, co-owner Abram Thomson was fortunate enough to learn his craft under Horace Greeley-"the Father of Modern American Journalism" and owner of New York's Tribune.  Both bolted the Whig Party in 1860 to join the new Republican Party and give support to Abraham Lincoln, who, following his election, repaid the debt by appointing Thomson postmaster of Delaware, Ohio.  Abram eventually turned over control to his son, Henry Clay Thomson, in 1897.

The furniture-related businesses on our list include Sawyer Bentwood (Vermont, 1801); Hussey Seating (Maine, 1835); Suter's Handcrafted Furniture (Virginia, 1839); and Richardson Industries (Wisconsin, 1848).  In the early 1800s, Daniel Suter, a skilled Mennonite cabinetmaker and carpenter, settled in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and began making furniture.  Today, William Suter and his daughter, Carol, of the sixth generation, carry on the family tradition of quality craftsmanship, turning out beautiful colonial reproductions in cherry, mahogany, and walnut.

The musical Daynes in Utah and the Langlois family of Washington State carry on from great-grandparents.  Daynes Music (1862) got its start in Salt Lake City, and today the business is recognized as the oldest music store in the West and the second oldest in the United States. (The oldest, Steinert's of Boston, opened in 1860 but is no longer owned by the original family.) Daynes is a dealer for Steinway & Sons, which began in New York City in 1853 and remained a family business until 1971 when it was purchased by CBS.  Paschel L'Anglais established his music store in 1865, and his great grandchild, Ira Langlois, and wife, Sherry, sell, tune, and rebuild pianos to this day at Langlois Pianos in the Seattle area.

I could go on with many tales of fascinating businesses.  The most heartening outcome of our study, however, is the evidence it provides of the rich contribution family enterprises have made to the history and success of our country.  Family business forms an extremely valuable segment of our society, yet it has steadfastly received insufficient attention.  We hope the results of our survey help cultivate wider awareness and appreciation of those families who have played, and continue to play, an essential role in the American economy.

Senior citizens: The oldest in each state


Did we miss any firms?

In compiling the first-ever listing of the oldest continuously owned and operated family businesses in the United States, we tried to be as comprehensive and accurate as possible.  However, we can't say, unequivocally, that there might not be a few family enterprises lurking in particular states that are even older than the businesses we uncovered and verified.  For example, in Louisiana, we listed the famous Antoine's Restaurant (1840) in New Orleans despite learning about Parlange Plantation, an eighth-generation business begun in 1750 whose history we were ultimately unable to confirm.

Written verification of founding dates and number of generations (as of December 1998) was received from company owners or managers in all but a few noted cases.  Nonetheless, even in these instances, contact was made and eligibility confirmed over the phone.  Readers with contradictory or supplemental information are invited to email us at wohara@bryant.edu or call the Institute for Family Enterprise at Bryant College (401-232-6477).


William T. OHara is founder and executive director of Bryant College's Institute for Family Enterprise.  He wishes to acknowledge the research support of Bryant MBA candidate George A. Kinnear.