A. Sam Farm: An evolving local enterprise

Every day we can tune into public media’s account of the widening civil war in Syria. Here is a land we know through familiar biblical and historic references, home at one time to the Egyptians, the Canaanites, Phoenicians. Hebrews, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Turks. Great empires have vied for power and influence over the centuries in this terrain that connects three continents, bridging cultures of the East and West. Struggles continue as passions flare from strong political and religious roots. The modern states of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel were created by western powers in the early 20th century from Greater Syria.

In Chautauqua County, we have immigrants from these lands; people making positive contributions in many areas of our society. The contributions go beyond some favorite foods such as pita bread, hummus, kebabs, baklava, baba ghanoush or stuffed zucchini.

One example is the Sam family, which developed a major agribusiness here in Chautauqua County and beyond.

The member of the family with whom I am most acquainted is Helen Sam. In my opinion, she is one of the most dynamic, business savvy, compassionate, accomplished women of our community. At 81, she outworks the average person. She is likely to inform you that she is leaving work at A. Sam Farm a little early today (at 6:30 p.m. ) because she has a sermon to write and church business to attend to at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Dunkirk. She and Yvonne Fancher have recently become qualified to serve as parish priests. The Silver Creek Episcopal church has recently come under their wings as well. In addition, Helen, the youngest child of founders Albert and Nacima Sam, continues her work at A. Sam Farm.

Helen’s father Aboud, Ibn (son of) Salim of the lineage of Dayoub arrived at New York’s Ellis Island aboard the ship Pretoria on Oct. 30, 1908. As so commonly happened, his name was “Americanized” to Albert Sam. He was still in his teens, a native of Safita, a small town about two hours from Damascus, Syria.

Without knowledge of English or much money in his pocket he headed to Irwin, Pa., to join a small cluster of Syrians from his home region living in this coal-mining community. He secured employment and worked for several years until he was able to return to Safita to marry Nacima Norman, his childhood sweetheart.

Nacima was an orphan raised in a loving foster family after all members of her own family tragically died after eating mushrooms. She was ready to join Albert for a new life in America, having heard the streets were “paved with gold.” The couple first came to Dunkirk about 1910 when a job became available at the Dunkirk Radiator plant. Albert was called “Jumbo” by his coworkers and was known to be a hard working and loyal employee.

In time because of his love for the land they bought a farm on Route 20 past Fredonia but were not successful in those early years and lost the farm to the bank. Not defeated, Albert bought another small piece of land on Lake Shore Drive West outside of Dunkirk in the early 1930s and began to farm.

He expanded his small operation by purchasing fruits and vegetables from other local farmers and driving to the Pittsburgh market. Business grew and he expanded into marketing potatoes and later, added Cleveland to his market circuit. He lacked a formal education and often struggled with English but developed a reputation as honest and trustworthy.

Eventually Albert’s mother, Susan, joined them in America and established herself by peddling clothing door to door in Pittsburgh. Nacima was an equally hardworking partner. She had a phenomenal ability to calculate math in her head with accuracy, which compensated for language limitations. Once the farm got under way in Dunkirk she set up her own fruit stand, and the rest is history. By the 1940s, the stand had evolved into a full service grocery store.

Many people remember shopping at A. Sam and Sons Supermarket located on Lake Shore Drive West. .

Helen said, “We were slightly more accommodating than other local businesses. It was not unusual for neighbors to wake us in the middle of the night if they needed milk for the baby or for other needs.”

Both the business and the family grew. The Sam family had five boys and two girls. Esau, Castle, Samuel, Michael, Norman, Mary, and Helen. Four of the boys joined the service during the war. Due to a leg injury Sam remained back and helped the growing family enterprise. His own family lived just next door. Because of labor shortages during the war everyone had to work hard. In those days the farm grew all kinds of berries, fruits, and vegetables. Mary and Helen packed cucumbers, tomatoes and potatoes, picked fruit and helped at the store. The children continued the peddling tradition by selling fresh produce door to door in Van Buren and in the Pennsylvania area. It was not uncommon, reports Helen, that the truck would be loaded with fruit and the driver told not to return until it was all sold.

Albert was very patriotic.

“He loved America with all his heart and soul,” reported Helen.

Several times he donated loads of peaches and potatoes to encourage the sale of war bonds, giving away a bag of potatoes or a box of peaches to anyone who bought a bond. He refused to deal with anyone attempting to sell on the black market. As the boys returned home each found a niche in the family business. Flowers (gladioli) were added to the line of produce and one could order a freshly killed and plucked broiler chicken right at the fruit stand, along with other customized services.

The strong work ethic of the family is a constant theme in stories told of their history. As farmers the Sams got up early to head out to market and start the day. Albert believed “the early bird gets the worm.” He would shout out “All Aboard” as family members gathered to begin their daily routine “even if you had just arrived home from market hours before in the dark of night.” The family and the farm had “party line” phones as was the practice in those days . The neighbors’ only complaint about the Sams was how the phone started ringing at 5 a.m. when the markets opened.

The children were taught to be kind to those in need and people in need were often taken into the family until they could safely move on. Helen remembers the only time she was punished by her father was when she giggled about a ragged hobo who had been invited to share a meal. She was sent away from the table and reminded never to be unkind to those less fortunate, a lesson she has never forgotten.

The 1950s brought competition from big box groceries which led the company to join the Bell’s supermarket chain. Later, A. Sam Farm reclaimed the space and moved the business toward its current operation. The new focus is cabbage and serving as a primary supplier of cabbage to Chinese markets, retailers and restaurants throughout the eastern United States. The symbolic lions at the entry to the property today reflect the admiration Chuck Sam has for elements of the Chinese culture, the new marketing focus and his willingness to invest in beautification of the property. Certainly the thousands of tulips and geraniums in season on the farm are spectacular. Not many may know that the Sam family donated thousands of geraniums to the city of Dunkirk and neighborhood groups this past spring.

The small fruit stand is now gone and retail fruit is no longer available except for the fruit baskets in the Christmas season. The original 30 acres, and over 30,000 sq. ft. of structures, including the packing house and cold storage stand on the same land. In addition there are 3,500 acres of leased farmland here and in Parrish, Fla., 50 miles from Orlando, where farming is a year round enterprise. A. Sam Farm employs 60 full time workers and 100 seasonal workers.

Many family members continue to work at the original homestead. Ninety-year-old Esau shows up for work every day. His son, Charles, manages the daily operations of the business. Others have branched out into other enterprises.

An enterprise in Buffalo called Father Sam’s Bread was started by the son of Samuel Sam, who became an Episcopal priest. After receiving permission from his bishop to use his mother’s old world flatbread recipe for communion, his bakery began. First serving only his church community, the bakery now consists of a 40,000 sq. ft. wholesale operation marketing to all points east of the Mississippi. The company is now expanding to make and market tortillas.

TimePieces, the gift shop on Day Street in Fredonia, is operated by Barbara Sam. She also is responsible for starting and managing the Fredonia Farmers’ Market. Mark Sam, a regular fixture at the market with his “Popcorn Ministry” helped manage the farm until his recent sudden death on the job. He had been the computer expert for A. Sam Farm and Dayoub Marketing, Inc.

Nick Andin, whose mother was a Sam, managed the packing house for 40 years, owned the trucking firm that moved much of the produce initially, then eventually moved into real estate. It was the Andin family who acquired Dunkirk’s Masonic Temple in the 1980’s and renovated it, adding the elevator and converting it to a multipurpose hub of the city. Deborah Washington, one of Nick’s daughters, has been selected as “Hometown Hero” for her work rescuing stray animals.

Several family members are in landscaping: Robert in Florida and Russell in Connecticut. Edmund had a pet and fish shop in Jamestown until his retirement. The extended family numbers now over 150 members.

The family values the close knit relationships, mutual support and cooperation within their circle. Their hard work has brought success. Times of adversity have strengthened their resolve and led to innovative ways to keep the business fresh and competitive. A. Sam Farm and Dayoub Marketing, Inc. is an integral part of the business and spiritual fabric of the community – a proud tradition which enriches our local history and offers entrepreneurial inspiration.