Jacob H. Thomas, standholder, gives ham to 3-year-old Billy Hess, 1946 Courtesy Lancaster County Historical Society
Central Market and the Tradition of
Market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Lancaster's Central Market marks the site of
America's oldest continuously operating public farmers' market,
chartered to the people of Lancaster and operated by the city. It
is one of a handful of municipal markets surviving in late 20th
century America. For Lancastrians, the history and significance of
the Central Markethouse is inseparable from the weekly activity of
"market." For 270 years, Lancastrians have come to the central
market square to buy foods from local growers and producers in a
dedicated civic, communal space. The project studies the history of
the Central Market to unearth the fundamental connections between
Lancaster's urban and rural communities, and between the county's
urban core and agricultural lands. While the weekly custom of going
to market is seeded in our colonial heritage, the particular
character and long life of Central Market have flowered from the
intrinsically agrarian values of Lancaster's Plain Sects and their
deep roots in this region. For them, farmland is to be tended,
protected and used as the basis for community life.
The current Central Markethouse was built in 1889,
designed by John Warner, an English architect who ended up making
Lancaster his home. The building, exceptionally attractive and
functional, was finished in an astonishing five months. Today only
slightly altered from its original form, it fills the market
square, resting on an imposing base of rusticated red sandstone and
framed by robust 72' twin towers at its front corners. Thirteen
sets of double doors open into a dramatic cathedral-like space, the
roof carried by a network of timber and iron trusses on just 20
columns, covering a 20,000 square-foot floor. Twenty-two dormer
windows pierce the roof, part of a natural ventilation system
designed to draw stale air and odors up from the floor.
The Friends of the Central Market Oral History
project discovered how deeply the sense of belonging in and to
Lancaster continues to be rooted in his weekly market experience.
This connection to place is enhanced by the continuity of both the
customers and the standholder families, descended from the Plain
Sects, some of whom have sold there for four generations.
The report ends on a cautionary note. Since 1959,
more than 92,500 acres of Lancaster farmland have been paved over
for suburban housing and retail development. The region is now
ranked second in the nation in terms of most endangered prime
farmland. The loss of local farmlands has been accompanied by the
influx of large supermarket chains whose produce is largely shipped
in from distribution centers across the U.S., Europe, South
American and elsewhere. Central Market clearly wears the sign of
these modern times; its product mix has shifted away from fresh
foods and seasonal, regionally-grown produce. The trend became
apparent in the 70's and 80's when many standholder-families left
market after 50, 60, even 90 years. Local meat and produce stands
were supplanted by candy, craft, gourmet food, and flower stands.
Once a vital part of urban life across the country, the centering
experience of market has for most Americans been obliterated, in
practice and in memory. Although threatened, Lancaster's market
still survives, in practice and in memory, a legacy for the nation
in the fullest and deepest sense.
Documentation for the project includes a 27-page
narrative on the history of the Central Market and the cultural
significance of the market tradition, incorporating remembrances of
customers and standholders; information on Friends of the Central
Market; 30 annotated black and white 8 x 10 photographs, comprising
a selection of historic photographs from the Lancaster County
Historical Society and recent photos from 1999; and copies of
architectural drawings of the 1889 building.
Originally submitted by: Joseph R. Pitts, Representative (16th District).
The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.