David Cronig turned 106 on May 19, and he celebrated at the Henrietta Brewer House in Vineyard Haven, the same town where he grew up helping his father, Samuel Cronig, and his uncles Ed, Theodore (“Tebby”), and Henry, with the first Cronig’s Market. The Times chatted with David Cronig and his niece, Gayle Stiller, last fall after he moved back to the Vineyard from Florida, where he and his late wife, Grace, had retired.
Though David just celebrated another milestone birthday, he was happy to talk about family history that day in October.
David’s father, Samuel, was the first of the Cronig brothers to make it to the Island in 1905, after having grown up in Lithuania, then under Russian rule. He went to work first on an Island farm, and then at Look, Washburn & Co., and Bodfish & Call. His brothers followed, and the four of them set up their grocery business in 1917. After a rocky start, the brothers eventually purchased the Main Street store building at the corner of Church Street, and expanded their business.
“Somehow my Uncle Ed and my father settled on the Island, and they evidently sent for more brothers, Uncle Henry — later he was in the real estate business — and in 1917, the four brothers, Samuel, Ed, Theodore, and Henry. That’s when they started their own grocery store. Mr. Slocum owned the property where the grocery store was. I was the oldest, and I remember something about the opening of the store.”
The Cronig family’s history is an inextricable part of Island history; Samuel Cronig was the first Jewish person to settle on Martha’s Vineyard. Henry Cronig, the youngest of the brothers to arrive here, built a successful career in real estate. He found a large Colonial home for sale in 1939, which he purchased and then turned over to the Jewish community at cost, and since a “community” couldn’t own property, the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center was formed, and the house was moved to a lot on Center Street, and the beginnings of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center took shape.
“After many years, of course, my brother Robert and I got into the grocery business,” David recalled. “I remember going to work with my father, I tried packing shelves; I must’ve been 7 or 8 years old.”
He and his brother expanded the business, which included a twice-a-day delivery service for many years. It was David and Robert, who died in 2008, who built the second, larger grocery store on State Road in 1976; the Main Street market closed in 1989.
Gayle asked her uncle during the fall visit, “How did you meet Aunt Gracie?”
“That was a setup job,” David said. “We had older cousins in New Bedford, some cousins from Europe, and we were introduced, and evidently we liked each other. We had three children, the youngest is Donald, and Marcia and Jeffery.”
David talked about playing clarinet in the Vineyard Haven Band, and then continuing to play in Florida after he and Grace moved south. They lived in a retirement community in Deerfield Beach, Fla., where David kept active. Grace’s sisters moved there as well, and David said he enjoyed walking with his two brothers-in-law in the morning, stopping for coffee and doughnuts on the way home.
Though his sight is failing, David Cronig still has memories of a long-ago Martha’s Vineyard, and the hard work his father and uncles put in to create a business here. He is a rarity, someone still alive who was born before World War I. His family helped him celebrate his birthday, and a part of history at the same time.
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