New owners for Erskine’s, iconic Chester store Bartonsville family keeps 'Erskine' name, products as it targets young clientele

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

This afternoon, R.B. Erskine Grain & Supplies officially became Erskine’s Grain and Garden as the feed store in Chester Depot was sold to new owners. The similar name is not the only thing that will be familiar to long-time customers.

From one family to another. From left, daughter Adeline, Purney, Sunflower and son Louis in their new business. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

As Bartonsville residents Janessa Purney and Burleigh Sunflower take the helm, they say that the “core operations will remain unchanged and we’ll return garden and agricultural sales back to normal as soon as possible.”

And the familiar face of former owner Mike Erskine will be around, working four days a week as the new owners get their bearings.

“I wanted to purchase and run Erskine’s … because it’s a way to combine a hobby and a passion into a living,” says Purney.  “Burleigh and I have always dabbled in homesteading, raising animals to both sell meat or eggs and to feed ourselves, gardening and working on our own small orchard. I enjoy talking about it and sharing ideas with friends, and I think that is a big part of what Erskine’s is.”

Looking at the market

The couple have worked in marketing in the ski industry – Purney at Bromley and Sunflower at Okemo – and they’ve watched with interest as the market for home gardening and food supplies grew during the current pandemic.

Hobby gardening exploded in a public way,” says Purney, pointing to two or three local Facebook support groups for gardening and first-time gardeners. “There’s also the move in Chester to put up a community greenhouse and start a community gardens. These are regular people. They aren’t farmers and they’ll need help and advice in addition to supplies.”

Purney, who grew up in northwest Connecticut, has gotten her hands dirty in agriculture working four summers for Harlow’s Farm in Westminster while in college and two seasons after that. Hailing from northeast Pennsylvania, Sunflower worked at a number of small diversified farms doing everything from beekeeping to dairy farming, including a 6,000-tap sugaring operation.

When the couple moved to Bartonsville in 2008, they went deeply into backyard agriculture raising meat chickens, layers and pigs.  and geese. They’ve kept bees, planted fruit trees and put in a 2,500-square-foot garden — “always with the advice and support of Mike and his team,” says Purney.

Mike Erskine will continue with the store part-time as Purney and Sunflower get their bearings

“Erskine’s has established a lot of cred through years of service to the community,” says Sunflower. “People like to connect with the authenticity and charm of Erskine’s.”

Over nearly 60 years, Erskine’s grew and established itself at the center of Chester’s business community. Mike’s grandfather, Richard Bedford Erskine, worked in the current building when it was Park & Pollard from 1939 before starting his own grain store nearby in 1952. He then bought the Park & Pollard building around 1963. His son, Robert W. Erskine, bought the store in 1975 and Mike bought it from his father in 1998.

Mike and his wife Catherine announced the closing in May of this year hoping to find a buyer, but expecting to sell the inventory for pennies on the dollar. But since then he has been able to keep the place open on limited hours and pretty much emptied the cavernous warehouse behind the retail area.

A few changes in store

Purney says there will be some changes. For example they will be dropping many of the hardware items, noting that Chester already has a hardware store. That will allow the new owners to open up the retail area and find ways to display merchandise to make it easier for customers to find.

The store by the railroad tracks has been in the Erskine family for nearly 60 years

While Erskine’s has kept to traditional pen and paper ways of conducting its business — a computer appeared fairly recently — Purney understands the sense that it has never been a digital business. “We want to maintain that but also develop a website with online inventory and streamlined ordering side by side with the old-fashioned way, like calling an order by phone.”

Sunflower also noted that they will use digital marketing to find a younger clientele and those coming to Chester from away by using the store’s authentic backdrop in campaigns.

Purney and Sunflower intend to add more supplies for gardening, canning, food preservation, beekeeping and backyard sugaring as well as raised bed kits and soil testing. They are also planning workshops to feature the store’s offerings and help those with little experience to succeed.

“People are working remote and buying land for the first time,” says Sunflower. “We want to connect with those people and work with them in addition to the regulars.”

“We’re looking forward to working with the Chester community,” added Purney.

Of course, the pandemic can make business complicated too. But Purney says they plan is to be flexible, will be open to the public and will offer curbside pickup. Home delivery also may be in the works.

While starting in late fall and winter will make for challenging cash flow, Purney says it gives the couple the opportunity to start slow and learn the ropes before having a grand reopening in the spring. For now, Purney says the store and warehouse are pretty empty.

“We’re going to take a couple of weeks to patch up some places around the building that need immediate attention, set up our point of sale, clean up a bit and restock as much as possible,” says Purney. “And we’ll be hiring one person who must be able to lift 50 lbs – repetitively.”

Purney says they are going “to try very hard” to be open by Christmas but December and January are a slower time of year, so they plan to open five days a week, to start – Tuesday through Saturday.

Will there be chick days?

“Yes!” says Purney, “I can’t wait!”


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  1. Lyza Gardner says:

    Hooray. That is all. Hooooooray.

  2. Nancy Eddy says:

    I am very happy that the grain store will still be a grain store. I have many fond memories of the R.B.Erskines grain store and I wish the new owners great success in their new venture. So glad that Mike will be there . Would not be the same without him.

  3. Joe Karl says:

    Echoing what has been said- A happy bit of news to end 2020!
    We miss the local icon dearly and welcome Janessa and Burleigh with open arms – six feet apart arms!…

  4. Sue McKnight says:

    Hurray! Wonderful news at the end of a dreary year. I was sooo sad when Mike & Catherine decided to close this wonderful, stepping-back-in-time, very necessary store. Will continue to miss them & their staff, but sending Best Wishes to you folks for great success!

  5. Carlita Saunders says:

    Congratulations Janessa and Burleigh! Best wishes. This is wonderful news.

  6. Barbara Calhoun says:

    Wonderful news for Chester. Congrats and best future for all.

  7. Nancie Lorenz says:

    This sounds like a perfect fit!
    Congrats ALL around!

  8. Daryl Gustafson says:

    What wonderful news! Perhaps we’ll move back to Vermont now.

  9. David Carey says:

    FANTASTIC!!! What a wonderful early present for everyone in Chester and the surrounding area. We’ve all sorely missed having an agricultural store in town. Best of luck Janessa and Burleigh in all your future endeavours at the store.

  10. Mike McLaine and Meredith Tips-McLaine says:

    We are very excited about this. Congratulations Burleigh, Janessa, Adeline, and Louis. Can’t wait to meet you and pick up some shavings and grain!

  11. Tim Roper says:

    Congratulations! This is terrific news and I’ll look forward to meeting you both soon.

  12. Lillian Elliott Miller says:

    I still miss Put’s Christmas meatballs.

  13. David Waldmann says:

    Congrats guys! You are the perfect ones to take it over, and while I have never been a huge “user” of Erskine’s I am SO happy to see it staying open for the benefit of our cozy community.

  14. Doug Reitmeyer says:

    Congratulations Janessa and Burleigh!! What an exciting opportunity for you and your family and great news for our community👍 Very cool☀️

  15. Susan Hammond says:

    Hurrah, so happy the sale went through. congratulations Burleigh and Janesa! Glad Mike will be around for a while as well. Happy that sugaring supplies will remain. And I would also be happy to get my dog and cat food locally again if you are going to carry it. Best of luck and see you in the store as well as in Bartonsville.

  16. Pam Nelligan says:

    This is such great news !!!!
    Erskine’s was my favorite place !!!
    Bravo and congratulations !

  17. Lori Dubreuil says:

    So happy to hear that Erskine’s will reopen! Looking forward to meeting the new owners. Kudos to Mike for helping out during the transition. Can’t tell you how much I’ve missed the Erskine’s crew…

  18. Judy Robbins says:

    It’s more than wonderful that Erskine’s will be open again. You have been dearly missed. Congratulations! Will you be carrying horse equipment and feed for live stock and shavings?

  19. So exciting !!!! Welcome !!!!

  20. Betty McEnaney says:

    This is great news. Congratulations! I love the attitude of local businesses helping each other by not duplicating merchandise. Best wishes to outgoing and incoming owners.

  21. Kate Deslauriers says:

    I’ve missed this store so much since it’s been closed! So excited to see that it will return and stay the same!

    Congratulations to the new owners!

  22. terry Holden says:

    lilly and i have been waiting for this moment can’t wait to stop in!

  23. Sharon Mueller says:

    Burleigh and Janessa are genuinely nice, hard working, and passionate about growing healthy food. How wonderful that they can now help the rest of us do that. I’ll look for Mike’s smiling face too, as he helps with the transition. And Louis and Adeline too!

  24. Arlene Mutschler says:

    Good luck and welcome! Will you be carrying dog and cat food? Like Purina brand items
    Id rather buy from local; but right now all I have is CHEWY. or Tractor Supply

  25. Frank Kelley says:

    Congratulations to all! Excited to see what the next chapter of Erskines will bring. We’ll be there to support it.

  26. David Gibson says:

    Wonderful news. Best of luck to you both, and I look forward to stopping by the next time I come through.


  27. Linda Diak says:

    Congratulations! We are so excited and happy to read this! Our best to all.

  28. Judy Mittica says:

    That’s awesome!

  29. Janessa Purney says:

    Thank you Shawn, for putting together this super announcement! Thank you Mike & Catherine for being so supportive! We know we’ve got big shoes to fill, but we’re very much looking forward to giving it our all and keeping the Erskine’s tradition in Chester!

  30. We are so thankful the store will remain open. It’s so interesting that when Grammie and Grampy (Mary and Dick Erskine) first moved to Vermont they lived in Bartonsville! The circle of life😊. All the best to your family in your new venture, Ed and Daryl. (a grand kid) Wilkins

  31. Melody Reed says:

    Congratulations! Wishing you great success. So happy to know we’re still going to have the ag store. This town just keeps getting better and better!

  32. Mike & Catherine Erskine says:

    We want to be the first to say congratulations!!!” We think Janessa and Burleigh are the perfect fit. Best of luck!
    Mike & Catherine Erskine

  33. Dan Tyrell says:

    This is wonderful news.