Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Built to Serve: Detroit Central Market

October 18, 2023
Detroit Central Market, Built 1860

Detroit Central Market vegetable shed in Greenfield Village, 2022. / THF190482

Cities like Detroit built public markets where growers, fish mongers, vendors and peddlers sold directly to customers. People of all ages, many nationalities and various occupations crossed paths in these spaces. Vendors paid rent and tried to outdo each other with their vegetables, fruits, flowers and other wares. Some hawked their services as chimney sweeps or day laborers. Customers, attracted by the variety, stayed for entertainment.

Detroit's Original City Hall Building with Market Sheds Behind, 1861-1871

Detroit's original city hall building with market sheds behind, 1861-1871. / Detail, THF623873 

Feeding a City

Detroit’s public market operated behind and on the first floor of the original city hall, built in 1835. In 1860, the city invested in a new permanent building, known as the vegetable shed, to house vendors in the open-air market behind city hall. The architect, John Schaffer, had trained in Munich, Bavaria. Schaffer incorporated traditional Swiss chalet-style details, like gabled roofs with wide eaves, large brackets and decorative fretwork. From 1861 to 1892, farmers, market gardeners, florists and nurserymen sold their produce in this building.

Detroit Central Market, circa 1888

Vegetable shed behind the imposing Detroit Central Market building (built in 1880). / THF200604 

Detroit city commissioners rented out stalls and stands in the vegetable shed for $6 to $15 per month, which would be about $200 to $500 per month today. The market opened April 1, and customers could buy fresh vegetables and fruits through October and fresh fish through November. Some vendors operated year-round, serving hot drinks, trinkets and food, from gingerbread to ham hocks.

The market bustled with activity, but city regulations helped customers navigate the busy space. For example, market managers designated the northeast end of the structure for use by fish dealers. It included a plumbing system to help ensure sanitary conditions.

As Detroit grew between the 1860s and 1890s, the buildings and landscape around the vegetable shed changed. Built in 1880, a new Central Market structure, which housed butchers and market staff, towered above the shed. Whitewashers (who refreshed darkened interiors with calcimine paint) and other day laborers hawked their services in the open space between the buildings year-round.

Harper's Weekly, Volume XXXIII, No. 1704, August 17, 1889

This 1889 Harper’s Weekly illustration shows the imposing Central Market building (built in 1880) and market sheds in their central location on Detroit’s public square, near Campus Martius. / THF620078 

Serving a Community

Vendors at the Detroit Central Market represented the city’s growing ethnic diversity and catered to the unique tastes of its residents. Vendors of all ages used whatever means necessary to attract customers. Their strategies might include strategic positioning or colorful clothing (to get an idea, see this image depicting an oyster vendor at an urban market on the East Coast). The historical record tells us that competition sometimes led to conflict — one newspaper story told of vendors hurling cucumbers at each other — but mostly, the common aims of making a living and serving customers helped keep disagreement in check.

The Central Market’s location on Detroit’s public square (now known as Cadillac Square) provided visibility and easy access that was further facilitated through transportation infrastructure. Nearby residents strolled on cut-rock sidewalks. Vendors hauled goods in handcarts, and horses drew market wagons and moved streetcars along rail lines from the outskirts to the city center and back again.

Central Market in Downtown Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890

Bustling scene at the Detroit Central Market, circa 1890. / THF96803 

The market served many purposes in the community, including offering a social safety net to indigent women and children. Vendors regularly filled baskets with meat and vegetables for boys from a local shelter.

Shifting Priorities

Feeding the residents of 19th-century Detroit required more than a single central market selling produce and meat. Cooks needed wood for fuel, and livestock needed hay and grain to eat. To meet these needs, officials managed wood and hay markets outside the city center.

Hay market with scales, likely located at Trumbull and Cherry Streets, Detroit, 1880-1890.

Hay market with scales, likely located at Trumbull and Cherry Streets, Detroit, 1880-1890. / Detail, THF623857 

But as coal and other fossil fuels replaced wood for cooking and railcars replaced wagons for transporting hay and wholesale produce, officials’ priorities changed. To help unclog city streets, they passed an ordinance banning market wagons from downtown. Produce sales shifted to locations east and west of the city center to Eastern Market (1889) and Western Market (1890).

At this same time, many urban customers switched from fresh to prepackaged and canned foods. These changes doomed the Central Market, which closed in 1892.


The city demolished other Central Market structures in 1894, but the vegetable shed survived. It was relocated to Belle Isle, a public park, where it served as a shelter, stable and storage building.

"Seventy Glimpses of Detroit," circa 1900

Former Central Market vegetable shed in use as a horse shed on Belle Isle, circa 1900. / Detail, THF139104 

The vegetable shed changed over its 110 years on Belle Isle. Conversion from an open-air shelter to a riding stable required raising the roof and bricking in the walls. The building had been deemed structurally unsound and was slated for demolition when The Henry Ford acquired it in 2003.

Experts dismantled the structure and salvaged its original components. They numbered each timber and decorative wooden element to confirm the original location and ensure accurate reconstruction in Greenfield Village. (The current structure includes 7 of the shed’s 11 original bays and uses 50 percent of the original columns and around 80 percent of the wooden framing members. Modern columns and a deep foundation ensure its stability.)

Dismantling the Riding Stable (Originally the Detroit Central Market Building) at Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, 2003

Dismantling the riding stable (originally the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed) on Belle Isle, 2003. / THF113573 

Today in Greenfield Village, the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed stands as a monument to public life, inviting us to imagine the bustling urban markets of the 19th century and setting a stage for ongoing conversations about how we can achieve a more sustainable food future.

This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator at The Henry Ford, from exhibit labels by Debra A. Reid, curator of agriculture and the environment.