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Women led historical movement for farmers’ markets in Grand Rapids

March 19, 2012

Leonard Street Farmers' Market

On Thursday March 8, anthropologist Jayson Otto shared the history of Grand Rapids’ farmers’ markets as part of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council “Grand Rapids Women and the Politics of Agriculture” series. From 1800 through 1946, the number of farmers’ markets steadily rose throughout the US. Grand Rapids was very much a part of this trend, especially from 1914 through 1928, when food costs soared due to the rising dominance of industrialized food production and distribution.

While industry leaders heavily influenced city government to quash the rise of farmers’ markets here, two forces prevented this from happening: farmers resisting through civil disobedience and women working together in a local movement to keep the markets open.

The other sources for food in the city were the many neighborhood grocers as well as the hucksters, underclass folks who sold produce from their carts. The grocers had the power to approve which hucksters could sell this food–and often it was not very fresh.

Around the turn of the century, grocers and food brokers influenced City Hall to outlaw farmers from retailing their wares along stretches of downtown streets, as was their custom. Retailing was discouraged at the wholesale market, which was a food distribution hub to all of Michigan and beyond. However, the small farmers continued to set up their illegal retail stalls–and people continued to go to them for fresh produce for some time. A woman vegetable grower from Wyoming, Mrs. Stall, was among those who resisted.

According to history that Otto was able to unearth, one tough market advocate who made the press of that day, August Raditz, was a white working class woman living on South Division Avenue. She was known for being handy with a scythe and standing up to city hall.

However, upper class white “club” women, Eleanor Nickleson, Helen Russell, Eva Hamilton and Emily Chamberlain were the identified leaders of the woman-led movement. They gathered momentum to establish retail farmers’ markets through a “High Cost of Living” campaign that eventually garnered support from the local Cabinetmakers union, businessman, Charles Leonard, of refrigerator fame, and the mayor of Grand Rapids. (Hamilton went on to be Michigan’s first woman senator). I n spite a strong opposition by male civic leaders, the result was three permanent farmers’ markets in the city: Leonard Street Market, South Division Market (at Cottage Grove) and Fulton Street Market.

When the farmers’ markets were met with threats of being closed in 1934 and 1955, women-led initiatives kept them open. While Otto was able to find photos and information about the Leonard Street Market up to its destruction in the 60s by urban renewal, the demise of the South Division market s seems to be undocumented. He guessed that the 1968 racial uprising may have been the cause.

The encouraging part of Otto’s presentation was the radical role that women have taken in establishing food security in Grand Rapids in the past. The discouraging piece was the lack of historical data around the role that people of color played in Grand Rapids farmers’ market history.

Do you have any recollections of the South Division Market or other farmers’ markets serving Grand Rapids people of color? If yes, please contact the local, women’s grass roots organization, Our Kitchen Table (OKT), The women of OKT are working for food security in Grand Rapids neighborhoods through the Southeast Area Farmers’ Market and food gardening programs. Knowing this history could bring another lost bit of important Black history to well deserved light.

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