From the West Hartford Archives: M.J. Burnham’s Grocery Store

M.J. Burnham's Grocery Store was located at 19 South Main Street in West Hartford Center. Photo Credit: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society

Historian Jeff Murray takes a look into West Hartford’s past to uncover some surprising information, stir up some memories, or reflect on how much life has changed – or hasn’t changed at all. Enjoy this week’s ‘From West Hartford’s Archives’ …  

By Jeff Murray

This was Myron J. Burnham’s grocery store at 19 South Main Street in West Hartford Center in the 1950s.

This particular article was inspired by a snippet of the Hartford Courant that fellow historian Daniel Sterner posted in a Facebook group, showing the front of Burnham’s in the 1920s. The site of Burnham’s, at 19 South Main Street, actually had a longer history before it got started. Walter Cadwell, who had been in the meat business since 1862, sold his business out in 1880, bought this lot of land on South Main Street in 1881, and partnered with another grocer from Newington, John H. Fish, for a new meat and grocery market.

This new building also housed the post office from 1885 to 1889 when Cadwell was the postmaster in town during the first administration of Grover Cleveland. In addition, they conducted a store and coal business at Newington Junction.

During the 1890s, the land surrounding his market was sold by Cadwell to newcomers, like the doctor Ralph W. E. Alcott, for new homes along South Main Street. After the business was closed up and the firm was dissolved, the building was rented by the town for a few years as a school to deal with the congestion until the new one was built at the corner of Raymond Road and Memorial Road in 1896.

In April of 1897, Hyman Smith, president of the Guilfoil Grocery Company in Hartford, opened a West Hartford branch in this store building. Smith’s daughter, Florence, had married Myron J. Burnham a few years earlier. Burnham was employed by the grocer Hills & Company since 1889 and it is this connection that brought him to West Hartford.

Apparently, according to Burnham in his later years, his father-in-law “was continually telling me that I would never become manager of a large store.” In 1898, Smith told him that he had a small store for Burnham to manage, but that it was destined for failure. Burnham bought out the branch store at 19 South Main St that April with only $500, two employees, and two horse teams. The timing was perfect though – new houses were springing up to the south and west of the Center from 1900 onward and the trolley line had been installed just a few years before, prompting a surge of development. Its central location made it a prime spot for society as a whole – for news, food, meeting.

Telephone operators in Burnham’s offices. Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society

An addition was built in the rear in 1900 and by 1908, the store employed 11 people with five teams. A meat department was added two years later and three more additions were put up in 1911, 1916, and 1920.

Burnham bought the house on the south at 23 South Main Street for a bakery, the business got a new Studebaker delivery wagon, and by the 25th anniversary in 1923, Myron J. Burnham’s grocery store had 50 employees. A $36,000 two-story brick addition in 1924 added 15,000 square feet of floor space. By the time his father-in-law sold him the remainder of the property in 1919, it was a thriving business that had experienced intense growth.

Rear of Burnham’s. Photo Credit: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society

By the 1950s, Burnham’s was facing heavy competition from larger supermarkets and in October of 1958, First National Supermarkets bought the grocery and closed the business. The property was levelled and used as a parking lot for the First National store to the south. Burnham also said that at the age of 87, he was finding it harder to run the store. Despite the million dollar business in 1957, they had taken a loss for the previous three years. Fourteen of the 50 employees had been with the store for 25 years or more.

While the area is unrecognizable today compared to when it operated, M. J. Burnham’s store lives on in the memories of those who are alive today.

Current view of 19 South Main Street. Google Street view

Jeff Murray was born and raised in West Hartford and has been involved with the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society since 2011 when he was a high school student and won the Meyer Prize for his essay on local history. Jeff routinely volunteers as local history researcher uncovering information for numerous museum programs such as the West Hartford House Tour and West Hartford Hauntings. Jeff works as a data analyst at Pratt & Whitney.

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  • To Jeff Murray – archivist
    I very much enjoy your archival reports. I think I remember that First National Store as a kid. My family lived in WH. from 30s ? onward. My husband & I lived there before retiring too & my son still lives there.
    I heard that My grandfather John Synnott was on the town council in early town years. My aunt Helen Synnott Murray was democrat Registrar of Voters – are you related to that Elliott Murray family?
    Could you please send me any info on my grandfather John Synnott – he built many homes on Seymour Ave.
    thanks – Nancy Synnott Cahill

  • As a life-long West Hartford resident, I cannot overstate how much I enjoy Jeff Murray’s deep dives into the We-Ha archives. I certainly remember the “new” FINAST store on South Main. (Many people used to remark that the company had misspelled “FINEST” until it was pointed out that the name stood for FIrst NAtional STores). In the 1950’s I had two uncles in the grocery business: one was a meat butcher for A&P, the other for FINAST. The competition between Red Sox and Yankee fans was nothing compared to my uncles’ fierce loyalty to their respective grocery brands.

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