211209ind History

A 25-acre greenhouse that today sits unfinished on the Schartner Farms property in Exeter points to the longstanding local farm’s future. Its past, says writer Tim Cranston, is one defined by the bonds of brotherhood as the family’s ties stretch back to brothers Julius and Joseph Schartner, who emigrated to America in 1891.

Goings on at Schartner’s Farm, which straddles the line between Exeter and North Kingstown out on the South County Trail, have been in the news these days. A massive new greenhouse complex has got some folks up in arms. Tim Schartner, of Schartner Farm, recently had a well-written letter to the editor in this paper with just a mention of his family’s remarkable story. That story deserves a more complete telling; so here we go. You know, as soon as I began to research this column, I thought I had the gist of it all figured out in my head; of course, this was going to be a story about farmers. But as I delved into the ins and outs of it all, I realized I was wrong to a great degree. Why sure this is a story about farmers, but it’s also much more than that. It’s really a tale about the unbreakable bonds that exist between brothers; generation upon generation of brothers as a matter of fact.  The story behind Schartner’s Farm is really all about determination, grit, perseverance, and the ties that bind brother to brother.

It all begins, as you might expect, with two immigrant brothers; Julius and Joseph Schartner, who came here to America in 1891.  Family tradition tells us that their home had been in the hamlet of Scharten, a village that is now within Austria, but the various notations on the 1900, 1910, and 1920 US Censuses tell us even more. These three detailed enumerations speak to the turmoil that drove so many to leave that section of Europe in that time frame. Constantly changing borders and alliances and the confusion which all that brought to folks who called that part of the world home, can be seen in these two brothers notations on the “country of origin” line. One year they call themselves Russian-Poles, the next Germans, and even for a time Lithuanians. Europe, throughout the years preceding and during WWI, was a confusing tangle of allegiances and this plays out time and time again in census notations such as these. What is certain is their arrival in 1891 and their employment in 1900 on the big Charles Allen farm in Berlin Massachusetts. It can also be gleaned from these early records that their employment on this farm had everything to do with the “skill set” that they brought with them to America. Tending to fruit tree orchards was what these two young men did and that is reinforced by the fact that their hamlet back in the old country was ringed with orchards. They were obviously hard working men adept at what they did, as by the census of 1910, Joseph Schartner, who was married by then with a family, owned his own farm in Berlin Mass and Julius, also married with a son, owned his own farm in nearby Bolton. Schartner Farms had its genesis on these two Worcester County farms.

This story continues with a second set of brothers, two sons of Joseph, who pack up in the late 1920’s and come to the North Kingstown/Exeter farm owned by the Arnold family. Edward J. & Albert C. Schartner came here and signed a lease-to-own agreement with the Arnolds and began working the big farm on Route 2 that would one day become synonymous with the name Schartner. Albert was a dairyman by trade and he soon was operating a dairy farm with a local milk route. Edward, noted by every member of the Schartner clan as an agricultural innovator and a man willing to take chances, ran a more traditional broad spectrum farm on the land; although at one point, like most of the farmers in the region, they turned over much of their acreage to the cultivation of “chippers”, potatoes specifically bred for potato chip production. In 1935, Edward took a break from farming and amazingly left the country to pursue a chance at diamond prospecting in South Africa. He came back, richer only in experience and nursing a deadly tropical viral infection that nearly took his life. In 1938, after completing the terms of their lease-to-own agreement with the Arnolds, the Schartner Brothers bought the big farm on the west side of Route 2 and then quickly purchased the farmlands of the Essex farm on the east side of the highway.  Sadly, in 1939, the Schartner clan experiences a terrible loss with the sudden death of Albert.  The family pulled together and younger brother John A. Schartner, a graduate of the Bryant-Stratton Business School in Boston, left his job at New England Power Company, pulled up stakes in Massachusetts and moved here with his family to join his brother Edward here in our fair town. Brothers to the rescue!

Edward and John, now two daring and innovative brother/partners, continued on without losing a beat, and in 1946 purchased the small Procter Farm on Boston Neck Road, just a mile or so south of Wickford. This was familiar territory for them as they had been leasing farmland in that area for quite some time which they had used in conjunction with Albert’s dairy business. But the innovative Edward had different ideas for this land and in short time he built and opened Schartner Dairy and Snack Bar on the site, taking advantage of the busy South County Beach traffic that flowed by each day. Here they sold farm products, such as vegetables, fruits, dairy, ice cream and the like and also ran a summer restaurant that featured fish and chips, clamcakes and chowder, and fresh corn on the cob.  The place was a hit and in 1951 the Schartner boys took it one step further and added “Kiddieland” to the location. Kiddieland featured a miniature steam railroad, a merry go round, a full sized fire truck ride, a “Sky-fighter” twirling swing ride with little planes and, at least once a season, a visit by a travelling circus. All this while still running the big farm up on Route 2. The Schartner Dairy and Snack Bar complex was a huge success, as you can imagine, every kid around wanted to stop here on their to or from the beach. The place ran until about 1960, when it was closed due to the completion of the Colonel Rodman Highway, which, although it sped folks down to the South County beaches, spelled the end for numerous businesses along Rte 1A. The old dairy & snack bar building sat there derelict until it was eventually demolished and replaced by the Oceanwoods Condo complex. The Schartner family regrouped up on Rte 2, the South County Trail, and the hands on the reins changed; Edward and John were replaced at the lead by a new set of brothers, Richard “Rit” and Norman “Norm” Schartner, sons of John, who kept his own hand in the agricultural world as a very successful apple broker working here in New England and in New York City.

Although the challenges faced by Rit and Norm in the last quarter of the 20th century were quite a bit different than those faced by their predecessors they were no less difficult and in many cases were more of a challenge. You see, local farming up until this point, with all its difficulties, did not have to contend to any degree with the twin problems of rapidly rising property taxes and the resultant pressure to sell or develop and the pressure from enormous out of state (read California and Florida primarily here) agribusinesses that work on high volumes supplemented by transportation and shipping innovations and nationwide supermarket distribution networks. These two critical issues, more than any others in the late 20th and 21st centuries, have separated the “wheat from the chaff” as far as farmers go. Only the strongest, most innovative local farmers have survived. Rit and Norm, along with a handful of other local farmers, are cut from this rarified cloth.  “Pick your own” and “buy local”, these guys set the standard for these two successful campaigns in South County!  Moving into trees, shrubs, and flowering annuals and perennials are part of the mix that have allowed Schartner Farm to survive and flourish. Working cooperatively with local and state officials and agencies on innovative protective purchase rights agreements has been a part of that mix as well. Rit and Norm have had to be flexible, fluid, and out on the leading edge with their business strategies to make it into the 21st century; to protect what was left to them by the previous bands of brothers who did whatever they had to do to survive.  And you know, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out one thing that both Schartner men and Cranston men (I am only three generations removed from farmers myself) share. We have all been blessed, across the generations, to have shared our lives with remarkable women. Grammy Schartner, a name found on numerous Schartner Farms products, is no advertising ploy; she was a real woman, a farm woman, a woman who had, like all the other Schartner wives and daughters, an important critical role in the ongoing success of this long lasting business.

So now, another transition in the multi-generational story that is Schartner Farms is beginning. Richard Jr. “Rich” and his brothers Jed and Tim are poised to move the farm forward.  Like it or not, they are going to have to deal with the Town of Exeter and find a way to quiet all the whispers about tomatoes transitioning to marijuana. All the parties involved out to sit down and work this thing out and let Schartner brothers do what Schartner brothers do best – farm! It’s also worth noting that descendants of Julius Schartner, back in Massachusetts, still own and operate the Berlin and Bolton farms that got the whole thing started; brothers and cousins still bound together by family and a shared passion for the land. Get out there and do your part now. Buy local produce — there are no better fruits and vegetables around than those grown in the good soils of our fair town.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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