290 5th St E
St Paul, MN 55101
Minnesotans, perhaps more than residents in any other state in the Union, know how important it is to make the most of pleasant weather. With us spending so many months out of the year freezing in our parkas, farmers markets boasting local produce, flowers, and handmade goods are a welcome way to celebrate growth and community. And surprise! Lowertown St. Paul is home to one of Minnesota's best farmers markets. A bustling city now, the St. Paul of the early farmers market days looked much different. In 1849, the population of St. Paul was only around 840. It was growing quickly, however, and in 1852, when the population of St. Paul had swelled to 4,700, the Minnesota Pioneer newspaper put forth a plea for a market:
A market house–this is one thing greatly wanted in St. Paul, not only for the convenience of purchasers, but also of sellers. There would be twice as much produce brought into town for sale, if producers knew where to meet those customers who most wanted their produce…
Vetal Guerin, one of St. Paul’s early settlers, answered the plea for a market. A philanthropist who donated land to the city for the courthouse and to the St. Paul archdiocese as the site for the second cathedral, he then built a 2-story brick building on his land at Seventh and Wabasha and became St. Paul’s first market-master.
The market opened on September 10, 1853. There was little refrigeration at the time, so the market had to operate frequently to keep up with buying needs. In its first year, the market was open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 4am to 6pm. Envisioned not simply as a market but also as a gathering place for the community, growers occupied stalls on the first floor while the second floor was reserved for community functions like meetings, plays, and courtroom hearings. Fresh produce was available in season. Other items, like dairy products, cakes, flour, and candies, could be purchased year-round.On May 22, 1854, the City of St. Paul took over supervision of the market and it opened for daily business. While enjoyed by many, some controversy did swirl around the market. The biggest complaint was location. Residents wanted additional markets serving different parts of the city. The city ultimately decided to maintain just a single location, at least for the time being.In 1879, the market moved out of Guerin’s building. The city set up a temporary market at Seventh and Cedar while construction began back at Seventh and Wabasha to create a new building better suited for a transformed St. Paul. The city, no longer a frontier town, was experiencing remarkable growth from an influx of immigrants seeking opportunities in the lumber, flour milling, and agricultural industries. The population boomed to 50,000 1881. The new market building needed to be bigger and better than the original. Abraham Radcliffe, a prominent St. Paul architect, designed an ornate Italianate/Romanesque-style Market Hall. It cost around $85,000 to construct. Again intended to be a gathering place for the entire community, the building was a combination of supermarket and civic center. It continued to provide the basic supplies the market originally offered, but went above and beyond to also offer restaurants in the basement and host meetings, plays, and dances in the second floor hall. The grand opening on February 22, 1881 was quite the party. Governor John Pillsbury, legislators, and prominent citizens all attended the concert, dance, and banquet that constituted the opening fete. A week later, when fire consumed the state capitol building, the legislature convened at Market Hall.
Unfortunately, Market Hall was obsolete within a decade. In 1900, 163,000 people called St. Paul home. The building, though grand, couldn’t accommodate the growth, and satellite markets had to pop up in surrounding neighborhoods to keep shoppers supplied with goods. In 1899 the public library moved into Market Hall and another temporary market was established on the south side of Third Street, between Wabasha and Seven Corners. The search for a new market site was on.In 1900, after a year-long debate, Tenth and Jackson street was determined as the new home of the market. Construction began in 1901 and the market opened in 1902. A major transformation in style and function had taken place, reflecting new trends in transportation and economics. The market was no longer just one enclosed building. Instead, it consisted of 6 open sheds with cement platforms and cast iron/ wooden frameworks supporting corrugated iron roofs. The new market chose function over design, making it incredibly accessible to farmers and customers alike but removing the civic engagement aspects of previous market sites. Private dwellings surrounding the market began to disappear, and the market acted as a magnet for similar businesses until retail and wholesale produce businesses dominated the area.
By the ’30s and with the advent of the automobile, the market was a major center of produce trade. An expansion of the site was necessary; funding was secured and WPA labor enabled the city to act.However, as the ’50s and ’60s dawned, a new trend emerged: suburban living. Suburbia meant shopping centers and prepackaged foods. It was no longer necessary or fashionable to shop at the farmer’s market. The market began to double as a parking facility, and by 1957, parking receipts exceeded market receipts. Then came the freeway system. Pieces of the market disappeared under roads, and other parts continued to be weekday parking. Stall rentals dropped off steeply, and it seemed as though the ’70s would bring an end to the market. A few growers held on, however, and as luck would have it, the ’80s brought about a surge of interest in urban reclamation.
In 1982 the market was moved again, this time to Lowertown and again as an open-air, high-function site. The increasing interest in healthy, local foods bolstered the fading market, and weekend attendance at the market is now back in the healthy thousands. Long live the Farmers Market!