Farmers Market (Will and Did) Make History

“A farmers’ market in Eugene,” according to minutes kept by the Lane Pomona Grange in 1910, “was utterly impossible. Housewives were doing a good bit of their shopping by telephone.” Those who had studied the matter believed it “unlikely that the ladies would be willing to shop at the market in person.” A vote of the grange members was taken and the idea was officially dropped.

So begins the history of the Lane County Farmers’ Market, according to the Lane Pomona Grange Fraternal Society and author Stan Bettis. The Eugene Public Library has a couple of copies of Market Days, which is good because only 3,000 copies of the first edition were printed in 1969.

As the city and county contemplate a land swap, Lane County Farmers’ Market is poised for historic changes. It’s a good time to be reminded of that history.

In 1915, the city of Eugene put up an investment of less than 100 dollars and the use of Park Street to bring a farmers’ market into reality. County government wanted to assist, but couldn’t give up control of the space the farmers really wanted — the northwest quadrant of the Park Blocks.

It’s been 99 years, but the farmers might now get access to the space they first identified as ideal. Farmers are rewarded for their patience.

The day before the market first opened in September, 1915, the newspapers in town worried whether it could succeed. The Morning Register encouraged housewives to “do away with telephone ordering and bring their baskets to the market for fresh vegetables and other products if they desire to see it become a success.” Although they referred to the markets as a “fad,” they reported that patrons elsewhere “declare that they always get good bargains.”

While the Register emphasized frugality, the Guard focused on conviviality: “… the value of the market as a regular meeting place for farmers, that would facilitate exchange of ideas and livestock, and that would foster the cooperative spirit, is one of its principal assets.”

It was that cooperative spirit that took hold most dramatically, bringing the city and county closer together when manufacturing and population growth could have led to separation. Bettis called it a division between “townies” and “hayseeds”: “Friendships that developed across the counters at the market stopped such a trend before it could begin.”

Success brought its own problems. In September, 1921, Eugene’s city council passed its first “no parking” ordinance. As Bettis describes it, “people had gotten into the habit of driving to work and leaving their cars parked in the streets all day,” making it difficult “to find a place to park for a moment when you wanted to shop.”

The farmers also needed more space, so they approached the county for a 20-foot-wide strip of land on the west edge of where the butterfly lot is today. “The court took a dim view of the idea,” according to Bettis, but granted permission nonetheless.

By 1929, the farmers again needed room to expand, but this time they were rebuffed. Unable to expand on the site of their origin, the farmers bought a corner lot at 10th Avenue and Charnelton Streets.

Neighboring business owners expressed outrage at the move: “No farmer, in his right mind, would locate a market where half his patronage would have to travel four blocks out of their way to reach it.…”

The farmers’ market survived the Depression and World War II, but not the interstate highway system. Once produce could be trucked quickly and inexpensively to be sold in supermarkets, farmers could no longer compete on price.

The by-then-conjoined Register-Guard wrote a eulogy for the market in 1959: “Such bazaars of our local bounty are outmoded in this age of supermarts. Sure, one can shop more easily, and likely more economically in a supermarket. Yet, to these ears, recorded background music played over a supermarket PA system will never rival the cheerful babble that filled the market…..”

It reopened in 1979, is back on its original site, and hopes to expand to more fully complement the Eugene Saturday Market. It may — now and finally — get that chance.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs