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The Eccentric Mainer Who Built the A&P Supermarket Empire

In 1859, George Gilman decided to change careers. At 33 he was an executive in his father's tannery in New York City. But he would soon hand over the reins of that business to his brother and devote his interests instead to importing tea. Gilman launched the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known to generations of grocery shoppers as the A&P supermarket chain.

A&P

An early advertisement for A&P coffees and teas

With more than 15,000 stores, A&P at its peak had more locations than Walmart. The A&P pioneered concepts such as store brands and discount pricing. But it began as a fanciful idea of a young man from Waterville, Maine who decided tea was a better way to make a living than tanning hides.

Gilman's first stores were confined to Manhattan, and they featured bright red exteriors, gas lamps and Chinese-themed decor. Attendants provided service for the customers. The earliest growth came from expanding to mail order business. The secret to Gilman's early success was eliminating the middle man. While he had started out as a wholesaler, Gilman quickly converted the business into a retail operation.

Gilman's father had been a privateer and made his fortune in the War of 1812. He and his sons left Nathaniel's wife behind in Maine for most of the year to work in New York. When he died in 1859, that was young George Gilman's signal to remake the family business. America was infatuated with tea, which was experiencing something of a boom in popularity at the time.

Gilman quickly persuaded George Hartford, another Maine man from Augusta, to join him at his new firm. Hartford would work his way up from clerk to take over the company upon Gilman's death.

In 1869, when the country's transcontinental railroad was completed, it inspired Gilman to adopt the Great Atlantic and Pacific name. In 1871, news of the Great Chicago fire reached New York and Gilman capitalized on it. He sent George Hartford to Chicago to establish the A&P's first store outside New York. The company was soon growing its number of stores by leaps and bounds.

Before the A&P would sink into bankruptcy in 2015, going to the supermarket meant going to the A&P for millions of Americans. A&P house brands such as Eight O'Clock coffee would become household staples. And the hands-on customer service George Gilman established would give way to modern, self-service discount shopping. But that would come long after George Gilman left the scene.

In 1878, at only 52, Gilman handed the reins of the stores over to George Hartford and effectively retired to his Bridgeport, Conn. mansion. There he lived a life of luxury and eccentricity. Gilman and his wife entertained frequently. He had a fleet of 35 carriages and a stable of 39 horses. In 1894, his house burned and he quickly replaced it with an even larger, 20-room mansion.

When Gilman's wife died in 1895, he became more eccentric. He began living as a recluse. Newspapers described him as practically a hermit. He removed the clocks and mirrors from his house so he would not be reminded that he was growing older, and his most steady contact with the outside world was a barber who visited his Bridgeport house daily to shave him.

When Gilman died, his estate devolved into chaos. He left no will. A woman came forward to claim Gilman's estate. Helen Potts Hall said Gilman had unofficially adopted her and promised to leave her his fortune. A judge did not find her credible, however.

Instead, the A&P fortune passed to Hartford, who said Gilman had made an agreement with him that half of the company was his. Gilman's relatives received the remainder of his estate, and Hartford eventually bought them out and set about the business of growing the A&P into the nationwide supermarket powerhouse that it would eventually become.

As late as 1965, the A&P was the largest retailer in America. Over the next fifty years, it would decline and pass through a series of owners until it entered bankruptcy in 2015.

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