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Jacob Thomas gives ham to 3-year-old Billy Hess, 1946
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).



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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.

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