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While it is unreservedly declared by his host of friends and acquaintances that Azel A. Packard’s life commanded a far-reaching business influence and respect because of the comprehensive knowledge that he possessed concerning the lines of practical enterprise that he had mapped out for successful procedure, he also won and maintained an even greater degree of public good-will and esteem and the friendship of more intimate circles due entirely to his benign and kindly personality. His whole-hearted and well-poised system permeated all his dealings, and progressively regulated and directed his plans and work. A leader in the mercantile activities of Springfield, Massachusetts, he had won his right to that position by proven ability to perform with completeness the duties of every position even from that of errand boy to the executive head of the firm of Meekins, Packard & Wheat. It was by means of the exemplification of such qualities as these that Mr. Packard attained honored place as one of the leading business men of New England, and made the firm -which he represented a peerless one in its field. He was a son of Bradley and Mary (Webster) Packard, his paternal ancestry being among the first-comers to New England.
The Packard family in America dates from early Colonial times, tracing its descent from Samuel Packard, immigrant ancestor, who came to New England with his wife and one child in the ship “Diligent,” of Ipswich, John Martin, master, in 1638. He came from Windham, a small hamlet near Hingham, Norfolk County, England, settled in Hingham, Massachusetts, and removed about 1660 to Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where he held office in 1664, and was licensed to keep an ordinary in 1670. His sons, and probably himself, were soldiers under Captain Benjamin Church in King Philip’s War, 1675-1676. His will was dated 1684 Children: 1. Elizabeth, born in England. 2. Samuel, Jr., born in Hingham. 3. Zaccheus. 4. Thomas, born in Hingham, living in Bridgewater in 1673. 5. John, of further mention. 6. Nathaniel. 7. Mary, married Richard Phillips. 8. Hannah, married Thomas Randall. 9. Israel. 10. Jael, married John Smith. 11. Deborah, married Samuel Washburn. 12. Deliverance, married Thomas Washburn, brother of Samuel.
The line descends through son John, born in Hingham; his son Joseph, his son Joseph, his son Timothy, his son Joseph, to Bradley, of further mention.
Bradley Packard, son of Joseph Packard, was born June 23. 1808, and died March 5, 1881. He married, December 2, 1831, Mary Webster, who died June 2, 1860. Their children were: Frances Submit, John Bond, Elvira E., and Azel A., of further mention, youngest of the family of four.
Azel A. Packard, son of Bradley and Mary (Webster) Packard, was born on a farm in Conway, Massachusetts, September 22, 1849, and he received his education in the public schools of his native town. At the age of fourteen years he left Conway to enter the employ of Azel D. Matthews & Sons, dry goods merchants of Brooklyn, New York, as errand boy. Nine months later he returned to Conway, and reentering the local academy, completed his studies there in two years. After graduation, he became a clerk in a country store in Conway, for a time, but soon went to Greenfield, Massachusetts, where he was employed for six years in the carpet department of the dry goods store of T. D. Root and Company, where his cousin and future partner, Emory Meekins, was also a clerk. In 1871, Emory Meekins took charge of the carpet department of the store of Tinkham and Company in Springfield, then the largest dry goods store in the Connecticut Valley. A few months later he found a place for Mr. Packard in the Tinkham store. There they remained for four years, Mr. Meekins as a partner for the last two years, and Mr. Packard as a clerk. In 1875, Mr. Meekins disposed of his interests in the Tinkham store, and with a working capital of $5,000 at his command, proposed that his cousin become his partner in a business venture. Mr. Packard consenting, the firm of Meekins and Packard was formed to conduct a business in carpets and house-furnishing goods, the new firm renting a store in the Main Street Building formerly occupied by the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, and now owned and wholly occupied by Charles Hall. Predictions were freely made that they would fail in a year. The young merchants, however, got only did not fail, but prospered so well that in a short time they were looking for larger quarters. Upon the completion of the Third National Bank Building at Main and Hillman streets, then the most imposing structure on Main Street, and popularly known as the Evans Hotel Block, Meekins and Packard took a lease of the two stores on the south side for a period of five years, the combined area of the two stores being only 5,000 square feet. From that small beginning, the business has expanded until it now occupies six acres of floor space, with an increase into millions of dollars, annually. A few years after starting in the new location, the firm occupied the entire building and subsequently the business overflowed into three connected six-story buildings on Hillman Street, with a frontage of four hundred and fifty-six feet. In the spring and summer of 1924 the lower floor on the Main Street side was completely changed and greatly improved and it is now one of the most imposing of the business blocks in the city. In later years, William G. Wheat, who had been a clerk for Meekins and Packard almost from the beginning, was admitted as a partner, and the firm name was changed to Meekins, Packard & Wheat. In 1900, upon the death of Emory Meekins, Mr. Packard and Mr. Wheat bought out his interests, and they continued the business under the old style for fifteen years. In 1915, because of the declining state of his health, Mr. Packard expressed a desire to retire from active business. Accordingly, a corporation was formed, of which Mr. Packard became a director, and continued as such until his death. Mr. Packard possessed an immense power for hard, painstaking work He had always had direct oversight of the furniture department of the large store, and while he had fully borne his share in building up the business, under his direction the furniture department became one of the largest of its kind in New England. His judgment in furniture values particularly was unerring, and he made frequent trips to the Middle West to replenish the furniture stocks required by the firm. The influence of the important establishment which Mr. Packard had so large a share in building up is a telling one in the community. Up-to-date methods, combined with a wise conservatism, have ever characterized the business policy followed by Mr. Packard and his partners.
In his social relations, Mr. Packard was genial, frank, and lovable. While he was a member of the leading clubs of Springfield, he took a very active interest in, and for many years was a member of the board of directors of various charitable organizations of the city, and he gave generously of his means for their support. Not only was he deeply interested in the welfare of such organizations, but he was ever ready to listen to any appeal for aid, and it was a pleasure for him to be of assistance to those who for one reason or another had become unfortunate. His charities, while generous, were unostentatious, as scores who were thus aided might testify; he was a man of noble impulses, and he will be remembered not only as a business leader, but as one who performed good deeds throughout his life. A Springfield newspaper, at the time of his passing, thus voiced the sentiment of the community in regard to the man:
In the passing of Azel A. Packard, Springfield loses one of its fine citizens, a man who during his long residence here made a large contribution to the city’s progressive development. In a quiet unostentatious way, he took a deep interest in civic affairs, and in every movement having for its object the welfare of the community. He was not a man to push himself forward, but his willingness to help whenever called upon, his breadth of view and his sound judgment, earned for him a secure place in the regard and confidence of his fellow-citizens. His gracious manner, his poise, and his kindly sympathy endeared him to a host of friends.
Mr. Packard enjoyed “The Birches,” his beautiful summer estate at East Longmeadow, Massachusetts; he was very fond of the outdoor life, and took a great interest in horses, having been owner of a number of animals of fine breed. He was keenly interested in all civic questions, and the higher interests of Springfield were ever near his heart, and at one time he served as a member of the Park Commission. He was a member of the board of directors of the City Library Association; was vice-president of the Springfield Institute for Savings, and president of the Springfield Mutual Fire Assurance Company. For many years he was a member of the First Congregational Church, and was active in the work of its parish committee; but some years later he joined the South Congregational Church and served as a member of its board of deacons and of its parish committee, always taking an active interest in that up to the time of his death.
Azel A. Packard married (first), June 17, 1874, Mary Vilas, daughter of the late Cyrus K. and Mathilda Vilas, of Alstead, New Hampshire. She died in 1890, and he married (second), June 15, 1909, Isabelle Young, daughter of the late Frank R. and Isabel (Stowe) Young, of Springfield. To the first marriage one daughter was born, who died in infancy.
Mr. Packard died in Springfield, May 11, 1923, at the age of seventy-four years. A sincere tribute was paid to Mr. Packard when his long-time partner, William G. Wheat, was interviewed by a representative of the “Springfield Union.” Recalling Mr. Packard’s last visit to the big department store, Mr. Wheat said: “We have been here as partners for thirty-seven years, and never has a disagreeable word been spoken between us. His was a beautiful character.” What more fitting tribute could be given to such a life at its passing?