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Clara Ford’s Roadside Market: A Small Building with Big Aspirations

September 8, 2014 Archive Insight

Clara Ford took her model of a roadside market to major garden and flower events across the country. Here she poses with it at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City (THF117982).

Buying fresh produce direct from local farmers is a key to our efforts today to “eat local.” Nearly 90 years ago, Clara Ford was advocating the same thing, to improve on diets that were undermined by too much processed food and--more importantly to her--to improve the situations of rural farm women.

In 1927, Clara Ford received a letter from the Women’s National Farm and Garden Association (WNF&GA), nominating her to be their President.  Founded 100 years ago, in 1914, the aim of the organization was to promote horticulture, agriculture and country life in general, focusing on the conservation of natural resources and environments.  More than a garden club, the organization sought to help women receive training and find employment in order to make a profession in horticulture and agriculture.  This interest in conservation, horticulture, and agriculture, and in creating new opportunities for professional women, was the focus of the efforts of the organization in its first decades.  It gained in fame for its role in the creation of the Women’s Land Army, or “Farmerettes,” who took the place of male farmers during the First World War.

Clara Ford took the WNF&GA in a new direction as its President.  Her life experience gave her footholds in the rural farm world of her youth as well as in the new, fast-paced urban world that had been created, in part, by the automobile, particularly her husband Henry Ford’s Model T.  She turned the organization’s focus from creating professional opportunities for women, to addressing the needs of rural women and their families.  Both Clara and Henry Ford were keenly aware of the degree to which farmers had been left behind in the economic booms of the late 19th and early 20th century.  While Henry Ford worked to develop new products for farmers, Clara’s efforts were geared to helping farm women sell their produce.

The automobile transformed rural areas as much as it did cities. City residents could now reach rural areas on day automobile trips. Clara Ford realized that the mobility afforded by the automobile created new opportunities for farmers to sell produce directly to city folk, rather than just through wholesalers or commission merchants. It also gave urbanites access to fresh produce at a time of heightened concern over the unhealthful contents of processed foods. Rural farm markets were of particular interest to her, because these markets generally sold items from the farm women’s work--butter, eggs, fruits and vegetables. The sale of these items would provide income and independence for farm women.

Clara Ford felt that a successful roadside market was more than a table or shack along the side of the road. The stand needed to be clean and well maintained, as those qualities reflected on the quality of the produce. But, if it was too fancy or ornate, it might be viewed as a stand run by “city folks masquerading as farmers.” Working with Edward Cutler, Greenfield Village’s historical architect, she designed a model roadside market that could be “made out of old boards and whitewashed, and so cheap no farmer can say he cannot afford it.” She produced a pamphlet with plans and directions for building a market stand 17 feet by 14 feet in size. The stand had no foundation, so it was easily moveable. In 1928, she presented an example of one at the National Flower Show held in Detroit.

Drawing on lessons learned by the auto industry, Clara Ford also provided sophisticated advice on locating the market, such as putting it on the right side of the road as it comes into a town, preferably near a corner, and avoiding placing it mid-way up a hill. She recommended that the market have sufficient parking that was easily accessible. She also suggested that farmers combine their efforts in a shared market building, to improve the selection in the markets and to avoid cluttering the approaches to towns with individual markets.

With a combination of modesty and pride, Clara Ford reflected on her efforts with the WNF&GA to promote the roadside market in a 1930 radio broadcast from the Chicago Garden and Flower Show:

We are working toward bettering Roadside Markets, we have started one in Massachusetts and hope to start one near Detroit, we hope to set a standard, calling for cleanliness, fair prices and fresh goods…we cannot expect to accomplish miracles at first, but hope to accomplish much good in the end.

The students of the Greenfield Village Schools tended their own gardens and operated this roadside market, located at the corner of Village Road and Southfield Road in Dearborn. This busy scene dates from 1938 (THF117976).

The “Detroit market” was built on the edge of Greenfield Village, at the corner of Village and Southfield roads in Dearborn. It was run by the students of the Greenfield Village schools, who sold the produce of their gardens.

Today, one of the great joys of “eating local” is seeking out roadside markets and bringing home fresh corn, tomatoes, apples, blueberries, or other fruits and vegetables. As we enjoy this wonderful food, we have to believe that the efforts of Clara Ford and the WNF&GA back in the 1930s did “accomplish much good in the end.”

Jim McCabe is Acting Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

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