Life | Locations | People

Wild times at the farmers market

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

Summer Saturdays in Detroit means it’s time to shop at the venerable and still popular Eastern Market, a destination drawing untold thousands of bargain hunters for more than 125 years.

Yet perhaps few shoppers today know that the market, bracketed by Gratiot Avenue, the I-75 service drive, Mack Avenue and St. Aubin, is the descendant of a rich cornucopia of Detroit farmers markets that blossomed in the 1800s, not only providing innovative technologies but also producing sometimes hilarious, occasionally notorious episodes.

Over the years, the markets were peopled by French gardeners, Canadians, Ojibwas and Wyandots, fur traders, trappers, wild game hunters, fishermen and later rebellious and politically powerful butchers, rowdy drovers and farmers derided in the city press of the day for “unkempt heads and beards that grow out of peculiar patterns and fashions.”

Then, of course, there were armies of marauding rats, pickpockets and thieves so brazen they were seen carrying away wheels of cheese and even whole hog carcasses.

In one of the very earliest markets, near Jefferson Avenue, the sheriff erected a whipping post to help keep order. Police and inspectors patrolled later markets.

Central Market, built beginning in 1875 in Cadillac Square in the heart of downtown Detroit, was the stomping grounds of the notorious Francis Benson, a vendor arrested 26 times in 20 years on various charges, including indecent exposure, shooting into a crowd, cheating, drunkenness and “acting insane.” He did beat the rap on the death of his wife, though, when it turned out that she died not from his vicious beatings but from alcohol poisoning.

Central Market on Cadillac Square

In the late 1800s, the Central Market on Cadillac Square was considered the upscale market. The three-story building, left rear, housed butchers while the vegetable market is in the foreground. Looking west, the building in the background left is old City Hall. (Detroit News archives)

Farmers markets since 1803

Benson’s disruptions aside, the 300-foot-long Central Market had the reputation of attracting a wealthier clientele than the city’s other markets. Detroiters proudly asserted it rivaled markets in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

It was by no means the earliest farmers market in Detroit. In fact the third ordinance of the city of Detroit when it was incorporated in 1802 was to establish a farmers market. (The first ordinance concerned fires; the second established the weight of a loaf of bread.)

The first market went up the following year. Throughout its history, the city has owned markets, collecting rent from farmers for the stalls and from vendors selling produce from wagons. For more than a century, open-air markets were the primary source of food for Detroiters, and a social meeting place for the wealthy and poor alike.

And not just Detroiters. Canadians regularly crossed the river, and Native Americans traveled for miles to bring their wares to market.

In 1838, English novelist Anna Brownell Jameson wrote these observations in her book “Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada” as she crossed the Detroit River by ferry:

“A pretty little streamer, gaily painted, with streamers flying, and shaded by an awning, is continually passing and re-passing from shore to shore. I have sometimes sat in this ferry-boat for a couple of hours together … amused, meantime, by the variety and conversation of the passengers, English emigrants, and French Canadians; brisk Americans; dark, sad-looking Indians folded in their blankets; farmers, storekeepers, speculators in wheat; artisans; trim girls with black eyes and short petticoats, speaking a Norman patois, and bringing baskets of fruit to the Detroit market.”

In 1899, well-to-do women arrived at Eastern Market in coaches and carriages, their drivers in livery. Ten years later, the ladies motored to market in a Detroit electric vehicle or were chauffeured. The poor did shop there as well, but they walked to the market that did business all day and into the night.

Technological progress

Initially, the earliest markets were lighted by candles, which were replaced by gaslights. In 1882 the gaslights faded with the arrival of the exciting new technology: electric lights.

“The cluster of ten electric lights were in operation for the first time last night and gave a very brilliant light, which was viewed by a large number of citizens,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

Two years earlier, the market operators had installed Detroit’s own Crown Jewel base-burner stoves. Eventually, they were replaced by steam pipes.

It was another advancement that finally enabled Central Market vendors to begin selling fish and oysters shipped in from the East: sewers. Fish sales had been prohibited for sanitation reasons until a sewer was built around 1880 under the market and lines run to butcher stalls and stone benches used for scaling and gutting.

If the markets were quick to recognize and put to work the latest technologies, it was human nature that most enlivened and animated the early centers of commerce.

Take the Cucumber War, for example. One reporter clearly enjoyed filing this story in 1861 for the Free Press:

“Elizabeth … arrived in town seated upon a two wheeled cart loaded with cucumbers, the whole affair propelled by a shagbark pony of French extraction. Elizabeth struck up a trade with Mrs. King, a retailer of green groceries and a pugnacious little lady pluck full of ginger and always keeping an eye out for a muss. A little dispute sprang up as to the number of cucumbers… and thereupon they waxed warm.

“… Mrs. King gave her opponent a crack that closed up the left eye… Just as Elizabeth was jamming a cucumber down Mrs. King’s throat, her husband joined in ‘Yer have the law, at her, bite her, the auld Dutch vagabond.’

“All the vendors rushed into the contest. … The stalls were cleared of vegetables to serve as missiles; cucumbers filled the air and the combatants grew gory from the effects of smashed beets.”

When stall keepers were not joining in marketwide food fights, they battled one of their most vexing problems: “sampling.”

Sampling was a common form of stealing, although practitioners never called it by such a rude name. And everyone did it: Customers, cops, children and even neighboring stall keepers. Some vendors reported losing $200 a year from sampling, no small sum in the 1800s. Customers also were easy targets for pickpockets, especially on busy Saturdays.

Colorful drovers

Other notorious characters were the drovers.

Because refrigerated rail cars were not yet available, cattle, oxen, sheep and hogs were driven on the hoof in herds through the city streets, where they were purchased by butchers who then led them to the neighborhood slaughterhouse or slaughtered them in their stalls.

Most meat began as livestock at the King’s Drovers or Cattle Yards on Grand River at Second Avenue, then on the outskirts of the city on the former farm of Lewis Cass.

A drover bought a small herd of between 10 and 40 animals — a drove — and began a days-long walk to Detroit. A drover team consisted of a boss who rode a horse and a crew who walked and their dogs. Teams stopped for the night at inns equipped with corrals to hold cattle or hogs.

Drovers could be a crude bunch. They arrived from afternoon until 9 p.m., pounding on their tables to demand food — and a lot of it — and shots of bitters or whiskey — and a lot of them. They departed between 3 a.m. and noon, leaving behind exhausted inn keepers and their families who also looked after stage coach passenger and farmers and their wagons.

Eastern Market in the 1910s

Eastern Market in the 1910s featured a double arch underneath the sign familiar to marketgoers a century later. (Detroit News archives)

A reputation for meatpacking

Once they reached the city, the slaughter began – on the streets in the early days, teaching Detroiters to find healthier detours. Butchers selected live animals, had them slaughtered and carted the meat to their stall or shop.

These slaughtering areas (formerly known as open air “shambles”) eventually prompted the mayor and city aldermen to pass a regulation forbidding “private” slaughtering of animals, meaning that henceforth all animals had to be slaughtered at the market only and not in neighborhoods or alleyways.

The conflict was forced by the fact that by the late 1860s, livestock was a huge industry in Detroit and across the state. Cattle were brought in from the Chicago yards but Michigan farmers produced nearly half a million hogs.

As the street slaughtering ended, Detroit relied on established slaughtering enterprises. In the 1860s the oldest and biggest slaughterhouse was owned by John Bigley. It was on the Detroit River and was considered humane and efficient. Bigley did not charge for his work, instead taking the remains of the animals the owners did not want. He then sold the parts to candle factories. Finished hog, sheep and cattle carcasses from Bigley were taken by wagons to meat packers in the city.

By 1915, Detroit meatpackers earned an international reputation for excellence in beef rib roasts, bacon and ham (a favorite in the homes of Londoners). The meatpacking plants produced revenues of $30 million and employed 3,500 men.

‘An architectural monstrosity’

But if the meatpacking plants were booming, the Central Market by the latter years of the 19th century had fallen on hard times, disintegrating into a tramp and rat haven. The heavy traffic of produce carts made getting around downtown difficult. By 1892, the press railed against the still-functioning market, demanding destruction of the building and calling for the development of a grassy square featuring fountains and benches.

“It was an architectural monstrosity from the outset and has been a repulsive blemish on the city ever since,” one editorial declared. “It is causing what should be one of the handsomest and attractive portions of the city for years to remain an eyesore and a disgrace. It has depreciated the value of all contiguous property. … It is reeking with grease, filth, bad air and worse odors. It defaces the heart of the city … every vestige of the rat paradise should be removed.”

The year before, in 1891, Detroit’s Common Council approved the development of Eastern Market, which had been a hay market and wood yard, and Western Market, at 18th Street and Michigan Avenue.

No baby carriages welcome

Just as now, Saturday was the day when things happened. In 1899, for example, 13,000 to 15,000 shoppers descended on the market compared with 5,000 to 6,000 people on weekdays. (Friday was the worst day to go “marketing” because shoppers quickly learned that farmers saved their best produce for Saturday.)

Peddlers and grocers rushed to the market early to stock up before shoppers arrived at 8 a.m. Many of the housewives pushed empty baby carriages that they used to carry home their heavy loads of vegetables. But the innovative early version of shopping carts soon clogged the aisles so much that the council’s Market Committee quickly passed an ordinance forbidding baby carriages with no babies in them in the open aired buildings or “sheds”.

The next week the housewives struck back, bringing their babies with them or borrowing someone else’s. As newspapers described the scene, “… sometimes there would be but a bald, little head protruding among the cabbages.”

The market also prospered greatly from the waves of immigrants arriving in Detroit, and it wasn’t long before the various groups and the vendors sorted out a mutually accepted routine. Eastside Jews came on one day, Polish women brought their husbands on another, the German hausfraus (who were regarded as very independent) picked their day, and the Belgians, who built a reputation as “close buyers but good customers” had their day. Hungarians took trains from Milwaukee Junction. Italians and Syrians arrived from “streets by the river.”

The market’s prices were the cheapest in town, an important inducement to immigrants, and the stall keepers catered to each group’s tastes.Farmers markets in old Detroit

The market that wouldn’t die

In 1892 the Common Council took action on the Central Market, voting 24-5 to abolish it in July when the last municipal bond had been redeemed and the debt was cleared; the five aldermen who voted against the action all owned stalls in the market. Especially prickly was Alderman William B. Thompson of the west side Eighth Ward, who was a butcher. He made it clear that he and the other butchers were not leaving the market.

And when July came and the city abolished the market, sure enough nothing changed. The butchers refused to budge and the shoppers showed up every Saturday as they had for decades.

Furthermore, the butchers stopped paying rent and became squatters. The city halted janitorial services and stopped buying sawdust for the floor. So the butchers paid for the sawdust and the janitors. The city cut off heat and lights. The butchers reinstalled lights and steam pipes.

Christmas came and the butchers cheerfully decorated the “abolished” market.

The Common Council was in an uproar.

So the city changed the governing authority of the market from the Common Council’s Market Committee to the Department of Public Works and planned to tear down the building down over the butchers’ heads.

A board member of the Public Works, Jake Guthard, entered the building on a Saturday and confronted the butchers. Alderman Thompson, standing before the others, blocked his way. Guthard told them that the building was coming down.

“It is not,” Alderman Thompson answered. Another butcher, Larry Fitzgerald, brought out his cleaver and swung it at Guthard, then chased him out of the building as the other butchers laughed. When Guthard complained to the Common Council at its next meeting, Thompson and another alderman mocked him.

And Thompson and the butchers didn’t stop with mere public mockery. They filed an injunction to block the demolition. The case went all the way to the State Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the city.

The butchers were undaunted. They hired guards to warn them of sneak attacks or night raids by city officials. And they kept their cleavers and knives handy to greet any policemen.

A wily public servant

But no officers were eager to make a move and Jake Guthard and Public Works board members were feeling the pressure.

So they promoted a new Secretary to evict the butchers and finally close Central Market. His name was Andrew McPherson. He was very young, a former sidewalk inspector. The board promoted him for “his enthusiasm.”

McPherson hit upon a plan to sell the large city-owned walk-in ice cabinets that the butchers used to store their meat.

On February 4, 1894, a Saturday night, McPherson waited alone in the dark on a very cold Sunday morning, watching the butchers’ guards. At 4:30 the man who bought the oak ice boxes, S.B. Dixon and his crew, arrived along with police. McPherson approached the armed guard at the door.

“You can’t go in,” the guard said.

As McPherson distracted the guard, Dixon’s crew used a heavy wood ladder as a battering ram and broke down the door, rushing inside as guards scattered to alert the butchers. Dixon’s crew quickly dismantled the ice boxes and McPherson had men pile the meat on wagons and leave.

The showdown was over.

Market heydays

Both the Eastern and Western markets were quickly adopted by vendors and shoppers. By 1924 Eastern was said to be the largest farmers’ market in the world, with more than $5 million worth of produce changing hands. “Produce is now trucked in from a radius of 50 miles and sometimes more than 100,” The Detroit News reported. “Celery from Kalamazoo, fruit from Benton Harbor, greenhouse products from around Toledo, berries from the Erie section near Toledo, truck crops from Canada are frequent sights.”

In 1932, Eastern, Western and a third market, Chene-Ferry, combined for a record 1,762 truckloads of produce on a single Saturday. But soon the freezing and packaging of foods and direct buying by chain stores would lead to a diminishing of the importance of farmers’ markets.

Western Market, which did about half the business of Eastern Market, lasted 74 years. Its 309 stalls were demolished in 1965 to make way for the construction of the Fisher Freeway.

But Eastern Market to this day attracts as many as 40,000 people and 250 vendors on a busy day. In fact, the market recently expanded its hours, opening on Tuesdays as well as Saturdays. It’s the last survivor of Detroit’s legendary 19th and 20th century markets, retaining the spirit of the city’s unique history – if not all of the drama and colorful characters of the past.

Sidebar: Maple sugar a hot commodity

In the early years of the 19th century, maple sugar was a staple of Detroiters’ daily diets. (White cane sugar was a luxury saved for special occasions).
Maple sugar was made by the Ojibwas on the Great Lakes and the Wyandots of the Detroit River. They brought the sugar to Detroit’s markets and in birch bark panniers often called mococks —- which held up to 50 pounds. Others contained only a few ounces, intended as candy treats for children.
The sugar was a huge business. In 1819, for example, 150,000 pounds of maple sugar were produced in Michigan. In 1828, one merchant in Detroit advertised 40,000 pounds of maple sugar, according to Detroit historian Silas Farmer.
Making the sugar was a tedious and tricky job. Native Americans gradually reduced the maple sap to syrup by repeatedly freezing it, discarding the ice, then starting again.
But the Ojibwa also cooked their dinners in the boiling syrup. So city children and others learned to look out for bones of fish and small animals in the sugar candy.
Those who bought the large panniers sometimes found the bones of dogs and deer.

Sidebar: Excellent apples

Early in the 19th century, French orchards on the Detroit side of the river were known for exceptional apples, such as the Caville Red, Snow Apple and the Detroit Red for both eating and cider.
Orchard keepers also maintained glorious pear trees that rose 60 feet from seeds said to have originated in France.

Sidebar: Wild boar, anyone?

Among the most popular items sold at the old City Hall Market, which existed in the mid-1800s, was wild game, which was hauled there by professional hunters and collectors.
Because the eastern part of the country already had been hunted out fairly early in the 1800s, Michigan became a major supplier of wild game. Detroit shipped venison, wild boar and birds to New York and Boston via the Erie Canal. Typically, wild game was served throughout the 19th century as a separate course in a formal dinner.