Hilltop

The Hill Top Fruit Market opened on National Pike in 1958.

Any business staying in operation for 50 years is quite a feat; and in this age of mega-markets and super sized one-stop shopping, an independent, “mom and pop” store achieving this sort of longevity is all the more impressive.

This very achievement will be celebrated by Western Maryland staple, Hill Top Fruit Market, 12579 National Pike, Grantsville, Saturday, May 17 as the family-owned business, its employees, and its loyal customers mark 50 years of business.

A business does not get to this point easily, and not without that first big step. In the case of Hill Top Fruit Market and owners Shirley and the late Chester McFarland, that first step was a modest one. Having grown up working in the produce business, Mr. McFarland set off independently, taking over the route delivering produce that he previously held with a company in Uniontown, Pa. That route brought him through Grantsville. Having since marrying in 1949, and having had several children, the McFarland family set its sights on something a little more stable.

It was five decades ago that they opened the first of what would become their three markets at Hill Top’s current location. It was a time when there was no refrigeration, it was a time when watermelons were 98 cents each and bananas were 10 cents a pound.

It was a few years after the opening of their Grantsville store that the McFarland family extended their business to better serve customers in the southern part of Garrett County and in neighboring Allegany County, opening Farmers Market in Oakland in 1961 and The Fruit Bowl in Cumberland in 1970. Still, despite the other two locations it was the original that was, and has more or less remained, headquarters.

The 1960s also saw two crucial additions to the business; one, in 1966, was in the form of what is now perhaps the market’s most popular feature — candy. This section of the business has come to include over 900 varieties, ranging from the contemporary to old-time favorites. Customers of all ages have enjoyed the variety offered and the ability to purchase in bulk, by the bag-full or individually.

The second addition, conversely the one aspect that has since decreased in operation, was a trucking fleet in 1968 that at one point had more than 40 of the now famously decorated trucks on the road.

Since those early years, the McFarlands and their business have seen their fair share of changes, and some attributes have not altered a bit. Like any 50th anniversary, there is a prevailing, nostalgic remembrance of things past throughout the family. Things are not what they used to be, especially the prices, as Ms. McFarland (and, no doubt, the customers) attests to.

The employees and the customers, according to several of the McFarland children, have not changed though. Many customers have remained loyal, respecting and admiring the way that the McFarland family has managed to keep the stores running with a small-town, intimate attitude, never bowing down to urban sprawl and conglomerate domination.

“Over 50 years we’ve seen families change,” said Shirley McFarland. “We used to serve their grandparents, now their grandchildren are the ones coming in with kids of their own.”

She noted the different buying habits of people 50 years ago as compared to today. Many families back then were in the routine of canning, thus they purchased a quantity of items to save throughout the year, particularly throughout Garrett County winters.

Now, most customers come in when they need something specific and leave it at that. Also, another major difference according to McFarland, is the practice of consumers who are now interested in “one-stop shopping.” “We are worth the extra stop for top quality produce and specialty items,” she said.

As a testament to the way the McFarlands run their business, all of their children have worked at the various markets since they were children; and as of this writing they are all there, along with some spouses. Many family grandchildren have also counted the “Fruit Market’ as their first job, where they would learn the ropes of responsibility and hard work.

Family working for so long is perhaps understandable, but non-relative employees keeping a long track record of working is even more remarkable. In fact, there are nine employees who have been with the various markets for 20 years or more, including three, John Swauger, Owen “Butch” Dolan and Carroll Deem, who have been with the business for over 40 years, with Mr. Deem retiring in 2007.

“There's no doubt that we (the McFarland children) have worked hard since we were little,” said daughter Linda Carr. “But if it weren’t for the group of loyal and equally hard working employees the businesses wouldn’t be what they are today.”

As with any business, as with any family, there have been ups and downs. Economically, losses are always taken as a result of weather, increased prices through the years and varying consumer demand. On a family level, a major loss came in 2002 when daughter Lois died. It was the first time since the markets have been fully operational that they lost an immediate family member.

Since then, another major blow came to the family, the business, and the community when Chester McFarland died in 2005. It was a tragic loss for those who knew the family well and for those involved with the business. Still, the businesses have persevered. Shirley McFarland and the 10 children are now at the helm and not much else has changed. Items have been added to the inventory at the market though.

Seasonal bedding plants, Amish-made food products, an array of cheeses and other items have been introduced through the years.

Hill Top Fruit Market has become a sort of landmark in the Western Maryland region. The business' trucks are instantly recognizable, both locally and nationally; a stop by the store has become a must for summer and winter tourists; and a mail-order service for those who are out of town and out of state ensures that the Hill Top Fruit Market makes its presence known throughout the country.

An uncertain national economy makes for an almost certainly difficult future, but according to the McFarland family not much will change for them. They will still try to be what they have always been: a place for friendly, recognizable service, a place for the lowest prices possible, a place of small town familiarity, and a place that will last for many more years.

As part of the upcoming festivities to commemorate the 50th anniversary there will be special prices, door prizes and give aways at all three locations. They will have free refreshments with a purchase from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday at Hill Top in Grantsville and 25 percent of all sales during this time will be donated to the Grantsville Volunteer Fire Company Building Fund.

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