The Farmers’ Market Bounces Back
Author: Grace Shackman
The city-owned market turns eighty next year. Its future looked bleak a decade ago, but today the biggest problem is competition for space.
“I have been to markets all over the world,” says Al Kierczak, a farmer who’s been coming to the Farmers’ Market since 1927, “and Ann Arbor is the nicest. It has the most variety.” His wife, Florence, confirms that wherever they travel, Kierczak spends part of their vacation taking a busman’s holiday, checking out the local markets in Europe, South America, and Japan.
Kierczak started coming to the Ann Arbor market with his parents when he was eight years old, riding in from their farm near Milan in an open Model T pickup. In those days the market was held around the old courthouse at Main and Huron, which had sweeping lawns on all four sides. Kierczak’s dad and the other farmers would back their trucks up to the sidewalk and set up tables to display their produce. If it was a hot day, they’d put up umbrellas.
The curb market, as it was originally called, was started in May 1919 by the Community Federation, composed of representatives from several women’s organizations. The group believed it could cut food costs by eliminating the middleman. In fact, several grocers, fearing the competition, went to the common council to object to the plan. They were overruled, and the council and the board of public works approved the federation’s request to let the farmers sell from the streets adjacent to the courthouse.
The original market began with ten farmers on the Main Street side of the courthouse. According to Rudy Weiner, each farmer sold something different: Adolph Weiner, Rudy’s father, sold flowers (he had emigrated from Austria where he was head gardener for Emperor Franz Joseph); Flora Osborne sold celery, Chinese cabbage, and onions; and the Riecherts of Chelsea sold fruit. Many of the farmers came in horse-drawn wagons. They’d leave their wagons at the curb and stable the horses in the dairy barn on the corner of Miller Avenue and First Street. If they had any produce left at the end of the day, they’d hitch up the horses and peddle it around town.
The city’s growth has long since overrun some of the early growers’ farms. The Weiners’ farm was on Packard, near where the Darlington Lutheran Church is now. The Osborne place was near today’s city airport, and the Dickinsons, another early market family, had a farm on Broadway. The market organizers talked of limiting the market to only Washtenaw County farmers, but since one of the early participants was from outside the county, they decided against it. But another rule they made at the time is still rigorously enforced: everything sold at the market must be produced by the vendors themselves.
The early vendors sold everything their farms produced--not just vegetables, fruit, and flowers, but also honey, eggs, dairy products, baked goods, and poultry--chickens were the most common, but turkeys, ducks, and geese also could be found at the market. Esther Kapp remembers that her family sold beef and pork that her father butchered. Several people even remember seeing dressed muskrat for sale.
With so many things for sale, it’s obvious why some of the local merchants were worried about the competition. But, bowing to the inevitable, some began buying market produce--such as seasonal strawberries, or Flora Osborne’s onions--by the crate or bushel to resell in their stores. Not wanting to sell out and disappoint their regular clientele, some of the farmers set aside a certain amount for wholesale or brought in an extra buggy-load for the stores.
As the number of farmers increased, people objected to clogging up Main Street, so the market moved to the Fourth Avenue side of the courthouse, then eventually wrapped around onto Ann Street. The market never used the Huron Street side, since it was too busy a street to block off. (Before expressways, Huron/Washtenaw was the main highway through town.) During the peak of the growing season, there were so many farmers that the market expanded to the far side of Fourth Avenue, in front of what was then the YMCA and is now the county annex. To limit traffic congestion, the farmers who used that space had to move their trucks out of the way after they unloaded. The market was such a success that in 1921 the common council decided to take it over. It has been a city market managed by a council-appointed commission ever since.
Anna Biederman was the city’s first market master. Born in Germany, she moved to Ann Arbor with her husband, John, and raised nine children. “She knew all about growing,” says Warren Staebler, who remembers her as the director of the victory garden he was involved in as a child during World War I, on land between Seventh and Eighth streets. Biederman did the same in World War II, and between the wars directed the children at Bach Elementary School in gardening on their own plots on what is today the school’s playground.
Biederman traveled to other markets around the state and became an authority on how to organize a community market. “Throughout the trying early years and the development into the present large market Mrs. Biederman has been the ruling spirit,” claimed a 1934 Ann Arbor News article. Her grandson, John Biederman, remembers her as “a little, short, chubby woman, very outspoken. When she ran the market, she ran the market.”
John remembers that his family benefited from one of the perks of Biederman’s position. “On market days we would get a call from grandma saying, ‘I’ve got a whole bunch of cabbages, or carrots, or beets. Come get them.’ The farmers would give them to her, and there would be too much for two people to eat.”
As the amount of traffic and the number of sellers increased in the 1920s, the courthouse square became a less satisfactory location for the market. In 1931, Gottlob Luick, a former mayor (1899–1901), solved the problem by donating land for a permanent site between Fourth Avenue and Detroit Street, which had been used by his lumber company. Adolph Weiner worked with Luick to design the market.
It was the midst of the Depression, so the city didn’t have money to develop the site, but the farmers made do, selling their produce from the sidewalk that fronted Detroit Street. They used wooden sheds from the old lumberyard for protection in rain and to keep warm in the winter. They created more space by adding a boardwalk along the northern edge of the property, creating an L-shaped layout. The wooden walkway protected people from the mud and also helped level a sloping piece of land. “It was three feet at the highest and then tapered down,” recalls fruit grower Alex Nemeth, who, like Al Kierczak, started coming to the market with his parents when he was a child. “I’d crawl under it with the other kids, looking for coins that dropped through.”
From 1938 to 1940, the present 124-stall market was built by the federal Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era jobs program. WPA workers roofed and paved the market and added another short wing extending west from Detroit Street. A market headquarters, a small tan brick building, was built in the middle, where the parking dynameter is today. Market managers used the back room for an office, while farmers used the lounge in front to get warm and to eat sack lunches.
Shortly after the market was finished, Charles McCalla built a cinder-block building just north of the market for his Washtenaw Farm Bureau store. He used the new building as a store and feed mill, and the old lumber warehouse on the corner of Fifth and Kingsley for storage and parts. (Both buildings are now part of Kerrytown.)
McCalla ground grain into livestock feed and sold prepared feeds, seeds, pet supplies, and penny candy. With such a convenient location, many market farmers bought supplies there. In 1962, McCalla’s son and daughter-in-law, Ray and Shirley McCalla, took over the business and renamed it Washtenaw Farm and Garden Center. In 1969, they sold the buildings to Kerrytown’s developers and moved their operation to Dexter.
Another nearby business that catered to the farmers was a small eatery run by Bill Biederman, Anna’s son. At the time the WPA market was built, there were still four houses along Fourth Avenue west of the market. Bill Biederman lived in one of the houses and ran a modest restaurant in his kitchen, serving breakfasts and light lunches--hamburgers, chili, soup. John Biederman worked as a dishwasher and cook for his uncle when he was a teenager. He remembers there were about nine stools and some little armchairs. When Anna Biederman retired, Bill took over as market manager.
During the food shortages of World War II, the market was busier than ever. Mildred Parker remembers customers lining up five or six stalls back to buy her chickens. “Finally,” she remembers, “I counted how many were left and then came out and said I’d sell one to each and the rest should go home.”
From its inception through the 1960s, market stalls were in great demand. “Quite a few [growers] would stay all night the night before to get a preferred spot,” Alex Nemeth remembers. Bob Dieterle, who still works the family farm near Saline, remembers that his mother used to go at 2 a.m. and park across from the armory to make sure she’d get a stall.
Once they had secured a spot, many stayed up all night, or close to it, getting ready for the market. Dieterle’s wife, Luella, used to spend the night picking flowers, a flashlight under her arm. Esther Kapp remembers harvesting until 1:30 a.m. and then rising again at 4 a.m. for the trip to town. Her three brothers stayed behind on the farm on Northfield Church Road to continue picking; while Kapp and her mother sold, her dad would drive back and forth all day to pick up fresh produce.
Winter was an even more trying time. Bob Dieterle didn’t miss a Saturday for fifty-seven years. “People depended on us to bring eggs,” he says. “Once when there was a big snowstorm, when we still had horses, I knew my dad’s ’34 Ford couldn’t reach the corner [to the main road], so I had the horses pull it there. I met him there with the horses when he returned at three.” Mildred Parker remembers selling eggs on a day when it was nineteen degrees below zero. “I had just the empty containers on the table. When I made a sale, I’d go to the truck, but every carton had at least one cracked egg. I could see they were frozen, so I just went home.” The farmers dressed warmly and rigged up homemade stoves, called “salamanders,” to keep warm.
Over the years, fewer and fewer people were willing to endure such hardships. For one thing, health regulations kept limiting what the farmers could bring to the market. In the 1950s, stricter standards stopped the sale of unrefrigerated dairy products: butter, milk, cottage cheese, buttermilk. Next, the state barred the farmers from selling meat. Kapp recalls, “We always had the meat in ice. It was a Lansing problem, not the meat inspector’s. We went up to Lansing to complain, but they had made up their mind.” In 1977 baked goods were banned unless they were prepared in a separate, licensed commercial kitchen.
The market went through a low point in the 1970s and 1980s. With farmers finding it harder to stay in business and local retailers luring shoppers away with more and better produce, the number of vendors plunged 40 percent between 1976 and 1988. That year, the Observer published an article asking, “Will the market survive to the year 2000?”
To keep the market going, the commission implemented two important changes. Some veteran growers were allowed to spread out, renting three or even four stalls. And for the first time, a dozen booths were permanently rented to craftspeople--woodworker Coleman Jewett’s Adirondack chairs, for instance, are now a fixture at the market’s north end.
Today the market is again full. According to Maxine Rosasco, market manager since 1987, there is even a waiting list: the `54 produce vendors and 144 craftspeople, who currently rent daily as space permits, want to be assigned permanent stalls.
While the turnaround is good news for the market, it also means that the two stopgap changes in the 1980s have become a problem. Pointing to their numbers, the craftspeople are lobbying for more space. “We set up Sunday for an artisans’ market, but they’d rather come on Saturday,” says Rosasco. And there is also friction among the growers themselves.
The waiting list for produce vendors is surprising--after all, farming has only gotten tougher in the last decade, and farms around the city have continued to be gobbled up by new subdivisions. But those losses have been more than made up for by growers coming from farther afield, as far away as Allen and Coldwater. And despite increased competition from supermarkets and produce markets, shoppers have continued to flock to the market for specialties, like Ken King’s organic produce and George Merkle’s Chinese vegetables.
“Buyers are more sophisticated,” says Florence Kierczak. “Years ago we didn’t sell kohlrabi, people didn’t know what it was. Now they do.” The Nemeth family has expanded its variety of fruit, offering customers different tastes, and also gaining a longer harvest. And many growers have responded to shoppers’ demands for bedding plants, especially perennials, as well as for cut flowers and herbs. The downside of the market’s resurgence is growing tension between longtime vendors and newcomers who’d like to get into the market. Some of the growers on the waiting list think that the vendors with four stalls should be made to give one up.
That, of course, isn’t going over well with the veteran growers. Says Mildred Parker, “They think they should get a stall right way. Some of us waited four or five years, or even ten, to get where we wanted.” The growers with multiple stalls say they need the space because they have to sell more now to make up for rising costs--for instance, new state health rules require that farmers making apple cider to have a separate press building with a cement floor. “One stall was adequate for each farm in the early days,” says Alex Nemeth. “Now you need two or three to make a living.”
Physically the market’s layout hasn’t changed much since the WPA finished its work, except for gradual expansions as houses on Fourth Avenue were acquired and demolished or moved. In 1980, city voters turned down a bond proposal to rebuild and winterize the market, apparently feeling the changes would make it too glitzy (although most of the farmers would have appreciated the warmth!). But by saving up vendors’ fees, the market commission was able to replace the roofs and gutters and build a new office at the market’s south end.
Crowds at the market remain strong, especially in midsummer when foot traffic gets so thick shoppers sometimes find it hard to move. The farmers for their part have warm feelings for the market beyond just making a living. Many have been involved for several generations and have become close friends, almost family, with their fellow farmers. Parker first brought her daughter in a playpen. In later years, her daughter became such good friends with the Kapps’ daughter that people didn’t know which kid belonged with which stall. The farmers have also made friends with their customers over the years. Says Olive Conant, “They’d talk to you, tell you things they wouldn’t tell others—they think farmers have a more down-to-earth life.”