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Man in blue button-down shirt and khaki pants walks along wooden fence with large white banner reading "Coming Soon: The Vegetable Building from Detroit's Central Market"

An amazing thing happened during the spring and summer of 2020, while The Henry Ford was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of dedicated individuals formed a new donor society, the Carver-Carson Society, and raised more than six times what was needed to bring back to life the Detroit Central Market in Greenfield Village.

How in the world did they do this?

Well, prior to the pandemic shutdown, The Henry Ford was still $200,000 shy of reaching its $5 million fundraising goal. The Henry Ford has always had big plans for the market, which was built in 1860 and is considered one of the oldest surviving urban farmer's markets of its kind in the country. The Henry Ford's vision is for the market to become a world-class convening center and hub of innovation by attracting farmers, food entrepreneurs and thought leaders to help educate and engage the public on critical issues, including food security, regenerative agriculture and environmental sustainability. That vision was in danger of being significantly delayed when The Henry Ford had to close its doors in March. This all changed when a group of dedicated donors answered the call to support the market project by forming the Carver-Carson Society and creating plans for The Henry Ford's first-ever virtual fundraiser, Farm to Fork.

Screenshot with 1-2 video chat participants in each of four quadrants

On August 20, 2020, Farm to Fork aired live over Vimeo, creating a virtual show filled with interviews, films, cooking demonstrations and engaging conversations. The event was co-chaired by Emily Ford, Lauren Bush Lauren and The Henry Ford's president and CEO, Patricia Mooradian, and raised over $800,000. This thought-provoking and entertaining event helped not only to cross the fundraising finish line but to surpass its original goal.

One of the highlights was the first Carver-Carson Conversation, featuring an intimate conversation moderated by Debra Reid, curator of agriculture and the environment. Special guest panelists included legendary chef and restaurateur Alice Waters; her daughter, designer and author Fanny Singer; event co-chair Lauren Bush Lauren; and Melvin Parson, a community farmer and The Henry Ford's first Entrepreneur in Residence. Their lively discussion touched on important issues around food security, food equity, regenerative farming and the need for local food environments and farmers. We plan to have many more Carver-Carson Conversations, both virtually and in person, in the future.

Woman seated and man standing in front of a curved screen or backdrop
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food, COVID 19 impact, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, agriculture, The Henry Ford Effect, philanthropy

A perfectly ripe tomato is a classic summer joy. But did you know that the growing of tomatoes has ties to many aspects of our history and culture? Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid uses our collections to reveal the many facets of the tomato.


The tomato -- a little fruit -- has big lessons to teach.

Double image showing two young girls and a boy among staked tomato plants

Tomatoes Growing in a Home Garden, circa 1915THF252180

First, yes, that’s right. Tomatoes are, biologically, a fruit – a berry that matures on a flowering plant. As this circa 1915 stereograph explains, “at first they were only small green things that grew where the blossoms dropped off.” Yet, the small green fruit grew into a plump, juicy “culinary vegetable,” considered such because of its low sugar content. (For example, processors transformed the fruit into a spicy vegetable sauce – catsup! – the savory contrast to sweet fruit sauces like apple butter.)

The image above shows a boy named Bob and his two sisters amidst the tomato plants they raised from seed, proudly displaying plants loaded with fruit. The Keystone View Company included an educational message on the back of the stereograph to engage children with growing fruits and vegetables. Bob and his sisters planned to share their finest tomatoes with others during their school garden show. They became role models for other students sprouting seeds and planting seedlings and then weeding and watering their crops.

By growing tomatoes, these children learned about domestication, the process by which humans select seed from bigger or tastier fruits or from plants that survive a disease or a drought. They cultivate these seeds (planting, weeding, harvesting, saving seed, and replanting year after year). This results in cultivars, each with different shapes, textures, colors, flavors. Over generations, humans have created more than 10,000 tomato cultivates by saving seed from their best tomatoes.


Why do tomatoes come in so many different shapes, sizes and colors?

Woman in period clothing bending over a wheelbarrow containing tomatoes and white eggplants
Tomatoes in the background and white eggplant in the foreground of the wheelbarrow. Photograph by Debra Reid, taken Saturday, August 15, 2020, at the kitchen garden at Firestone Farm.

Evolution resulted in distinctive varieties, but humans have also picked good-tasting fruits to propagate. (See how many different cultivars this proud gardener grew in the mid-1940s!)

The historic gardens in Greenfield Village include heritage cultivars documented in historic sources and saved through traditional seed saving. Three tomatoes often grown at Firestone Farm (pictured above) include Red Brandywine, Oxheart and Yellow Pear.

As demand for quality seeds grew during the second half of the 19th century, commercial seed businesses flourished. Companies such as Hiram Sibley & Co. contracted with growers to produce seed in clearly marked packages for customers to purchase. In addition to illustrations of the cultivar, the packet included descriptions of the qualities of the fruit, as well as best practices of cultivation (often in more than one language).

Tomato seed packet with tomato illustration on front & text on back
Hiram Sibley & Co. tomato seed packet, “Early Acme” cultivar, 1880s. THF278980/THF278981

Noted plant breeder Luther Burbank (1849–1926) crossed varieties to create hybrid cultivars that did not exist in nature. He sought disease resistance as well as a meaty tomato that had more pulp than seed – the meatier the tomato, the heartier the sauce! Some of Burbank’s varieties are still sold today.

Seed packet with photo of tomato on front and text on back
Charles C. Hart Seed Company "Burbank Slicing Tomato" seed packet, circa 2018 THF276144/THF276145

Twentieth-century concerns about food quality and nutrition led to the popularity of seeds like “Double Rich,” which were certified organic and yielded tomatoes with twice the Vitamin C!

You can learn more about organic cultivation and its relationship to the plant breeding process from the U.S Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Organic Integrity Database, and about biotechnology, including hybridization, from this USDA glossary.


Have you ever wondered who grows the tomatoes sold in cans or bottles?

Fancy-shaped blue, gold, red, and white label with a picture of a tomato and text
Product label for tomato catsup by Heinz, Noble & Co., 1872-1873 THF117246

Anyone with yard space enough can grow tomatoes. Yet, by the time home gardeners like Bob and his sisters planted their crop in the early 20th century, many urban Americans wondered what a vine-ripened tomato tasted like. Why? Because tomatoes could be easily processed into affordable packaged products, and most urban consumers paid clerks in general stores to pick tomatoes off the canned goods shelf.

People in a field picking tomatoes into crates
Workers harvest tomatoes at a Heinz tomato farm near Salem, New Jersey, 1908 / THF252058

Companies like the H. J. Heinz Company contracted with farmers to meet the demand for canned goods and catsup. Their production far exceeded the yields of home gardens. Heinz ensured success by growing seed tomatoes from which the best seeds became the basis for the next year’s crop. The company maintained a network of greenhouses to start the plants that growers put in the ground.

A rapid, careful and organized tomato harvest and transport led to high-quality processed foods. A sense of urgency dictated the harvest season, which began with careful picking and packing of the delicate and perishable fruit in special crates and baskets. It continued as laborers moved the full containers from fields to shipping points. Specially designed wagons and baskets reduced stress on the ripe fruit during transit. Only the best tomatoes made the journey to H.J. Heinz plants. Laborers discarded damaged fruit into barrels and packed others into baskets for shipment.

Several sailboats at dock, all filled with baskets of tomatoes
Shipping tomatoes by boat, H. J. Heinz Company, Salem, New Jersey, circa 1910 THF292108

Transporting tomatoes from truck farms to Heinz processing plants sometimes involved sailing vessels loaded with ripe fruit. At the height of harvest, barges carried loads of tomatoes from farms to processors. Growers in Salem, New Jersey, used the Salem River, a tributary to the Delaware River, to send crops to processing centers near large east coast markets, including Philadelphia and New York.


Mass production of tomatoes did not make home gardening obsolete.

African American man squatting by plant in field
Man inspecting tomato plant in Victory Garden, June 1944 / THF273191

In fact, times of economic hardship increased the general public’s interest in growing their own tomatoes. During the Great Depression, Henry Ford dedicated 1,500 acres of Ford Farms land (between Birmingham and Flat Rock, Michigan) to vegetable gardens. Ford Motor Company employees could sign up to tend a garden plot and retain the produce. Interest in growing tomatoes remained high during World War II, largely through the U.S. government’s Victory Garden program.

Home-grown tomatoes could even be symbols of resistance. George W. Carver encouraged farm families to grow tomatoes for the table as a strategy to strengthen their position, economically and socially.


Tomatoes have legal, ethical, and policy implications.

Red flag with white circle in middle containing stylized black eagle and text "FARMWORKERS AFL-CIO"
United Farm Workers Flag, circa 1970 / THF94392

Tomatoes have been at the heart of economic conflict between growers and laborers. California growers produced 85 percent of tomatoes canned in the United States by 1940. The larger the fields, the more urgent the need for laborers to harvest a crop that quickly moves from maturity to rot.

Most large-scale growers relied on migrant agricultural laborers at harvest time. They worked for wages determined by the grower and did not receive protection under legislation passed during the New Deal that established minimum wage, maximum hours and workers’ compensation. Instead, growers had legal protection to hire agricultural laborers for wages below the legal minimum and were exempt from compliance with maximum hour and overtime regulations. This meant that laborers had to work until the perishable crop was completely harvested.

Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 news report, Harvest of Shame, increased attention to the plight of U.S. agricultural laborers along the East Coast. Then, in 1965, Filipino-American laborers, members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, launched a strike to protest pay and working conditions. Latino pickers, members of the United Farm Workers Association, joined with them, and began a five-year strike in and around the grape fields of Delano, California. Consumers increasingly sympathized with the laborers on whom growers of other perishable crops depended.

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FMC Tomato Harvester, 1969 THF151662

Mechanical tomato harvesters became commercially viable in the context of this successful strike. When the FMC Corporation introduced its Cascade Tomato Harvester, Model 69W, in 1969, it advertised the machine as the savior of a multi-million-dollar crop and the preserver of the American people’s eating habits. The machine did not eliminate humans from the picking process, but it sped it up. FMC explained that it “picks a crop at the rate of nine tons per hour and cuts the cost of handpicking by 40 to 50 per cent.” Crews who operated the machine included a driver, a mechanic, and ten to twelve individuals who rode on the machine and removed debris from the picked tomatoes. This machine carried crews through midwestern fields, last on a farm near Grant Park, Illinois, between 1983 and 1990, which produced for the Heinz catsup factory in Muscatine, Iowa.

Changing harvesting practices required changing the form of tomatoes, too. Mechanical engineers believed the shape of San Marzano tomatoes would suit harvester belts. Plant breeders spent 30 years cross-pollinating tomatoes (including the San Marzano) to create a new hybrid that tolerated mechanical harvesting. In addition to uniform size and firmness, the fruits had to all mature at the same time on one plant, and they had to come off the vine easily.

Could scientists really slow the aging process? Microbiologists at Calgene, Inc. began research with that goal in mind in 1981. Their work paid off by 1988 with the “first commercially available genetically engineered whole food,” the Flavr Savr™ tomato. Genetic modification had shut down a protein that ripened fruit. It resulted in a tomato that could “last up to four weeks in a non-refrigerated state” (Martineau, pg. 4). An assessment of safety of the genetically modified tomato published in 1992 determined that the Flavr Savr™ remained a tomato and was food. (It bears mentioning that genetically modified tomatoes tend not to be listed in the Cultivated Plant Code because they derive from lines still being developed.)

Book page with text
Page from Safety Assessment of Genetically Engineered Fruits and Vegetables: A Case Study of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato from The Henry Ford's library.


Hungry for more on this little fruit with big impact?

Two women in period dresses and bonnets examine a tomato plant in a garden with unpainted picket fence in background
The Acme tomato in the Firestone Farm garden, August 21, 2018. Photograph by Debra A. Reid.

The Henry Ford has resources to help you explore the complete tomato trajectory to date.

You can….

Sources

  • Charles, Daniel. Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food. Perseus Publishing, 2001.
  • Dreyer, Peter. A Gardener Touched with Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank. Rev. Ed. University of California Press, 1985.
  • Hersey, Mark D. My Work is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. The University of Georgia Press, 2011.
  • Martineau, Belinda. First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food. McGraw Hill, 2001.
  • Redenbaugh, Keith and William Hiatt, Belinda Martineau, Matthew Kramer, Ray Sheehy, Rick Sanders, Cathy Houck, and Donald Emlay. Safety Assessment of Genetically Engineered Fruits and Vegetables: A Case Study of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato. CRC Press, 1992.



Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, food, by Debra A. Reid, agriculture

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Keystone Stereograph #149 “Harvesting Celery Blanched by Boards, in Michigan’s Famous Celery Fields, Kalamazoo, Mich. THF 145691

What comes to mind when you think of celery (Apium graveolens L. var. dulce)? The essential ingredient in chicken soup, an attractive tomato drink garnish, a low-calorie and healthy snack (with peanut butter added!), or all of the above? The low-calorie nutritious vegetable (in the same family – Apiaceae -- as the herb, parsley) can also lead you on a journey through local history, consumer demand, patent medicine promotion, and commodity chains that spanned the globe.

The ancient Greeks and Romans harvested seeds from wild celery, also called smallage (Apium graveolens L. var. secalinum). It grew best in temperate climates and in moist soils. The plant stalk and leaves had curative properties and seeds had a strong flavor and scent when dried and when processed into essential oil. Europeans included celery seed into tincture recipes in pharmacopeia and cultivated the crop in gardens by the mid-1600s. Over centuries plant-breeders created celery varieties with taller tastier stalks. Thus, celery shifted from a landrace (a plant evolving in a location over time) to a market garden crop by the mid-19th century. Celery growers in the Grand Rapids area helped make it an international commodity.

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Kalamazoo Celery Company, How to Grow Celery, 1886

The Celery Fields near Grand Rapids, Michigan
Agricultural stories start with land access (or lack thereof).

The introduction and expansion of celery cultivation in west central Michigan began in the decades following removal and confinement of indigenous people. Maps indicate the rapid changes that occurred as lands once tended by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi became the property of Euro-Americans.

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John Farmer published this map in 1831 and marketed it as “The Emigrant’s Guide; or, Pocket Gazetteer of the Surveyed Part of Michigan.” It included “An improved map of the surveyed part of the Territory of Michigan.” THF136462

The wetlands that once sustained indigenous agriculture became a commodity that other entrepreneurs used to build a celery empire. The map that J. H. Young produced in 1835, “The Tourist’s Pocket Map of Michigan,” implies a leisurely pursuit, but instead, developing land into productive farms consumed time and money, and it required brute force. Yet, settlement equated to “progress” and economic growth in the expanding nation and in the territory of Michigan.

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J. H. Young, “The Tourist’s Pocket Map of Michigan,” 1835. THF136466

Celery Entrepreneurs
Different individuals, all migrants to the area, receive credit for launching the celery enterprise. George Taylor, a Scottish market gardener, reputedly introduced commercial celery growing in the United States when he settled in Kalamazoo in 1855.

Other individuals, all well-heeled citizens of the area received credit as celery pioneers. Joseph Dunkley, an immigrant from Somersetshire, England, established celery fields by 1866 north of Kalamazoo and began shipping his crop via rail in 1880 to eastern and southern markets. Glenn Douglass Stuart received most acclaim -- “Were the lovers of this esculent herb to have a voice he would be crowned what he is already, ‘The Celery King’.” Stuart arrived from Gowanda, New York, via Oberlin, Ohio, in 1883, and by 1892 his biography in the 1892 Portrait and Biographical Record claimed that his firm (based in celery) employed one-quarter of the Kalamazoo population.

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Joseph Dunkley’s nursery business, Kalamazoo, Michigan,Portrait and Biographical Record of Kalamazoo, Allegan andOttawa Counties” (1892), pg. 935.

Lands further west developed as celery fields later. Celery pioneer George Hudson introduced the crop to Grand Haven around 1878, according to the 1892 history of Ottawa, County, Michigan. Hudson immigrated from Devonshire, England, worked as a market gardener in New York, and a lumberman in Spring Lake before settling down to celery in the Grand Rapids area.

Advertisement of George Hudson, “Historical and Business Compendium of Ottawa County, Michigan” (1892), pg. 30; with information on Mr. Hudson (pgs. 192-193).

Immense fields of celery thrived by 1880, and dominated in celery production to the 1940s, earning two cities on both ends of the celery zone the names “Celery City” (Kalamazoo) and “Celery Center” (Hudsonville).

Laborers in the Fields
While some immigrants received accolades for establishing the industry, other individuals received little recognition for the labor they performed. Families who migrated from The Netherlands did the bulk of the work turning wet soils into fertile celery fields between Kalamazoo and Hudsonville. Stereographs and postcards depict the intense physical labor that farm owners and laborers performed.

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Keystone Stereograph #149 “Harvesting Celery Blanched by Boards, in Michigan’s Famous Celery Fields, Kalamazoo, Mich. THF145692

Growing Celery
Before celery growing became concentrated in the area near Grand Rapids, market gardeners raised the spring vegetable and sold it directly to customers in public markets. The May 15, 1849 issue of The Michigan Farmer included growing directions from an English gardener. He advised planting the seeds in January in a greenhouse (and following with additional plantings in February and March to stagger harvests and meet market demand). Then growers should transplant the seedlings to the garden and protect the plant with a “hand glass.” Growers then earthed up the celery, setting the plants in trenches and hilling the soil around them to shield stalks and leaves from the sun. This reduced the acidic taste and stringiness of the stalks.

Such intensive cultivation practices yielded a crop that met the demand of wealthier customers seeking a spring tonic. A speaker explained the advantages of celery to members of the Kalamazoo Agricultural Society in 1850 -- celery was “peculiarly acceptable because it comes when our horticulture has no other fresh supplies to offer us.” The only other vegetables available at the time included potatoes, turnips, and cabbage. Such intensive

After Harvest
Wealthier families displayed the fresh leafy celery stalks in glass vases like this one. The vase held chilled water that helped keep celery stalks fresh during formal dinners. Diners consumed the carefully cultivated stalks raw.

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Celery Vase, 1820-1840. THF 168522

The cost of celery declined as mass production and marketing reduced the cost per bunch. This shifted celery from a delicacy to an essential vegetable for a growing non-gardening population.

Celery after harvest, took other forms.

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Product Label for Celebrated Celery Sauce by Heinz & Noble, "Put Up Expressly for Family Use," 1871. THF117109

Product marketing often featured larger-than-life products derived from celery.

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Heinz wagon with Celery Sauce advertising, circa 1879. THF 117121

Celery, the vegetable grown around Grand Rapids, attracted the attention of health food entrepreneurs like Dr. Vincent C. Price (1832-1914). He purchased Tryabita Celery Food Company in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1902 and operated it as Price Cereal Food Company. He also produced and marketed Dr. Price’s Wheat Flake Celery Food as essential for the health of vegetarians and the infirm.

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Advertising Poster, "Dr. Price's Food, Nature's Food for Man, the Only Wheat Flake Celery Food," circa 1910. THF 96676

Celery growers in the Grand Rapids area helped establish the crop in Sanford, Florida, in 1895. Growers planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. By 1898 they started shipping their crop via refrigerated railcars to northern markets including Philadelphia and New York City. California growers also established celery fields from Kalamazoo stock by the late 1890s, but their harvest reached market during the fall, thus theoretically avoiding direct competition with other growing areas.

Celery did not appear on lists of common garden vegetables because creating a tasty crop required more work than most hobby gardeners wanted to commit to the crop. Thus, celery did not usually appear in photographs or graphic arts that depicted garden baskets laden with potatoes, beets, cabbage, turnips, and other vegetables. This poster from World War I proves an exception, featuring a schoolboy with a healthy bunch of celery in his basket (on the left side, between the onions and the beets).

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World War I Poster, "Raised 'Em Myself in my U.S. School Garden," circa 1918. THF112810

As salads became a more common element of American dinners, fresh celery gained more visibility. This advertisement for Heinz vinegar (an essential salad-dressing ingredient) included a bunch of celery, along with another relatively new addition to American dinners, iceberg lettuce (behind the celery and the vinegar bottle).

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Advertising Layout Drawing for Heinz Vinegar, 1924. THF292743

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Celery reached consumers in packing crates. Storekeepers usually displayed the crop in the crate, as this image of J. F. Ryder’s Market in Maine, shows.

Grower cooperatives helped expand markets during the early 20th century. The Celery Growers of Michigan existed at least by 1935, the year that growers specified six standard packages for celery. This container was a "square" at the ends (8 inches by 8 inches) and it held celery bunches laid flat that were 10 inches to 18 inches in length.

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This “square” packing crate likely came full of celery from the farm operated by Ralph Schut, a descendant of Dutch immigrants in Georgetown Township/Hudsonville, aka “Celery Center.”
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Historically, celery was much more than a garnish in your favorite tomato-juice drink.

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Heinz Tomato Juice Advertisement, “Talk About Your Aristocracy!,” circa 1935. THF252238

Why are there more tulips in Holland and the Grand Rapids area today than celery? Growers responded to disease affecting their crops and increased competition reducing their market dominant by concentrating their resources on horticulture. Many celery growers already had green houses and operated nurseries, so they diversified their production by adding bedding plants and flowers to their market crops.

The region’s celery history remains visible through the Celery Flats Interpretive Center in Portage and in celery fields managed by grower-members of the Michigan Celery Cooperative, founded in 1951.

Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

by Debra A. Reid, Michigan, food, agriculture

What measures do you use to judge whether food is “healthy”? What connections do you see between healthy food and healthy communities? Today the concept of “food security” links nutritious food to individual and community health. This blog features historical resources in the collections of The Henry Ford that help us explore the meaning of “food security.” Many relate to the work of Black agricultural scientist George Washington Carver with Black farm families in and around Tuskegee, Alabama, between the 1890s and 1940s.

What Does "Food Security" Mean to You?
A big meal often symbolizes food security. You can almost smell the roast goose (once preferred to turkey) and taste the fresh apples, oranges and bananas in this centerpiece on a family’s holiday table!

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Family Seated at Dining Table for a Holiday Meal, circa 1945. THF98738

But does having a big meal on special occasions mean that a person, a family, or a community is “food secure”?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) explains that a person is “food secure” if they have regular access to safe and nutritious food in amounts required for normal growth and development and in quantity and calories needed to maintain an active and healthy life.

Students at this South Carolina school all appear healthy. This implies that they have access to a quantity of nutritious food necessary for normal growth. It also implies that they consume it consistently which helped keep them healthy and better able to complete their schoolwork.

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School Teacher and Her Students, Pinehurst Tea Plantation, Summerville, South Carolina, circa 1903. THF115900

Historically, many farm families raised much of the food they needed to survive, including meat, vegetables, grains, and fruit. The Mattox family farmed their own land, and they dedicated time and energy to tending their garden and raising their own beans and sweet corn (as pictured in this photograph). Being responsible for your own food supply required careful planning and hard work year-round because families had to grow, process, preserve, and then prepare and consume what they (and their livestock) ate. As long as everything went according to plan, and no disasters arose, a family might be food secure.

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Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991. THF45319

Many factors led to food insecurity. This indenture for three orphaned children, William (7 yrs old), Dennis (5 yrs old) and Henry (18 months old), specified that they receive “a sufficiency of food.” What did “sufficiency” mean? Consuming calories might provide energy to work, but calories alone did not (and do not) ensure a healthy life. Furthermore, being unfree made these indentured children dependent on someone else who might have other ideas about what “sufficiency of food” meant.

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Indenture for "...Colored Children Named William, Dennis & Henry," July 20, 1866. THF8563

Cotton and Food Insecurity
Southern farm families often grew cotton as their cash crop. Farm families could not eat cotton though the seed yielded byproducts used in livestock feed, and oil that became a popular cooking ingredient. Landowners and tenant farmers could strategize how much cotton to grow, and could plant corn to feed their hogs, and could dedicate land for a garden. Yet, many families across the rural South, Black and white alike, farmed cotton, and they received a share of the crop they grew as payment for a year of labor. Owners expected these sharecroppers to focus their energy on the cash crop – cotton - and not spend valuable labor on raising their own food. Instead, families became even more economically insecure by buying inexpensive food on credit.

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Picking Cotton, Louisiana, 1883-1900.
THF278896

Many sharecroppers and agricultural laborers in the South lived on a diet of meat (pork), meal (cornmeal) and molasses (processed from either sugar cane or sorghum) – the 3M diet. While pork in its many forms (including lard sandwiches) and cornbread with molasses provided much needed calories, the 3M diet did not deliver nutrients needed to maintain health. Niacin deficiencies led to the debilitating disease, pellagra, which afflicted impoverished people across the South and beyond.

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Trade Card for Silver Leaf Lard, Swift & Company, 1870-1900. THF225588

Inadequate supplies of food, and diets lacking in nutrients, undermined food security. Racism also undermined access to adequate foods. Graphic arts advertising southern staples often reinforced racist stereotypes rather than reality – that Black women often held positions of authority as Black cooks who prepared meals for others who could afford fresh foods and a varied and nutritious diet.

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Advertising Poster, "Old Fashion Molasses," circa 1900. THF8044

Improving rural health required a revolution that reduced the dependency on cotton and increased the types of crops grown for market. George Washington Carver, the first Black American to hold an advanced degree in agricultural science, used his knowledge to try to convince farmers to improve soils to increase cotton yields, but to also raise additional crops such as sweet potatoes and peanuts.

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George Washington Carver's Graduation Photo from Iowa State University, 1893. THF214111

George Washington Carver’s Work with Peanuts
Many associate Carver with peanut butter, but his relationship to peanuts far exceeds peanut butter.

A man in Montreal, Canada, secured a U.S. Patent for peanut candy – a paste sweetened with sugar – in 1884. At that time George W. Carver had been living for five years in Kansas working as a cook and laborer. Between 1886 and 1888, after being refused entry into a college in Kansas, Carver homesteaded near Beeler, Kansas.

Alabama, the location of Tuskegee Institute, where Carver went to work in 1896, ranked fourth in peanut production in 1900 behind Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Farmers in these states raised most of the raw product that Northern food processors like H.J. Heinz dry roasted and ground into peanut butter. This Heinz peanut-butter packaging features a blond blue-eyed girl in a grain field holding lilacs. This did not accurately represent southern farm families raising the high-quality crop that Heinz depended on for its “choicest peanuts.”

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Trade Card for H.J. Heinz Company, “Mama’s Favorites,” circa 1905. THF215296

As consumer demand for peanut butter increased, production increased. Nutritionists understood the value of peanuts and of peanut butter as an inexpensive source of plant-based protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. Farm families could eat their own home-grown peanuts but could also find a ready market for them.

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Women grinding peanuts into peanut butter at Heinz. THF292973

Tuskegee, Alabama was located just north of the peanut-growing region of southeastern Alabama. Carver set about to convince Black landowning farmers in and around Tuskegee to take advantage of the market opportunity. Orchestrating a more complete overhaul of cotton-dependent Alabama agriculture required convincing white landowners to free sharecroppers from requirements to grow only cotton. Others sought a revolution in civil rights through legal means. Even though many criticized the self-help message, families who ate better could channel new-found energy toward securing civil rights and social justice.

Carver appealed to his constituents in writing. He linked concerns about health and nutrition to economic independence in his May 1917 pamphlet, “How to Grow the Peanut.”

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Bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, 1917. THF213329

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Carver described the peanut as having “limitless possibilities.” The “nuts possess a wider range of food values than other legumes.” THF213331

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Carver described 105 ways to prepare the peanut – ground, boiled, roasted, and as a main ingredient in soups, salads, candy, and replacement for chicken, and other meats. THF213335

Crop Innovations
Carver applied his life-long fascination with plants to identify crops in addition to the peanut that had the potential to displace cotton. He used this weeder to collect specimens. He studied their molecular composition, extracted byproducts, and devised new uses for them.

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Weeder Used by George Washington Carver at Greenfield Village, 1942; Gift of Henry and Clara Ford. THF152234.

Carver promoted crops through short publications that stressed financial and food security.

Some crops occurred naturally, the wild plum, for instance, which landowning farmers might have on their property but that they undervalued as a food source.

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Bulletin, “43 Ways to Save the Wild Plum Crop,” 1917. THF288049

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During World War I, Carver promoted crops that Alabama farmers grew, but that could be processed into alternatives to wheat flour. THF290275

During the 1920s, Carver urged farmers to grow even more crops that they could eat, such as sweet potatoes.

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How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes, 1925. THF37735

During the 1930s, as economic conditions worsened during the Great Depression, Carver published a pamphlet focused on growing the tomato, a vitamin- and mineral-rich food source.

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Bulletin, “How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table,” 1936. THF288043

Carver, Food Byproducts, and Food Security  
Carver’s research into plant byproducts and new foods from farm crops caught the attention of Henry Ford.

Carver and Clara and Henry Ford corresponded about topics as practical as gravy made from soy and peanut flour, and as personal as digestive systems.

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Letter from George Washington Carver to Clara Ford, March 19, 1940. THF213553

Henry Ford recognized Carver’s inspiration by naming the Nutrition Laboratory in his honor on 21 July 1942.

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George Washington Carver and Edsel Ford at the Carver Nutrition Laboratory, Dearborn, Michigan, 1942. THF213823

Peanut Oil: A Byproducts Many Uses
Carver explained that peanut oil (separated from peanut paste) was “one of the best-known vegetable oils.” You can see oil, sitting atop the peanut paste, if you look for “natural peanut butter” at your local grocery store. Food chemists experimented with how to prevent the oil from separating from the ground peanut paste. Preventing separation requires hydrogenation, which changes the chemical composition of unsaturated fats and turns them into saturated fats. Heinz drafted advertisements to promote the new hydrogenated peanut butter to consumers as this example indicates.

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At Last! No oil on top. THF292249

The varied uses of peanut oil that Carver promoted increased market opportunities for impoverished farmers which increased their food security. To that end, Carver experimented with peanut oil as a rub to relieve the discomfort that polio patients suffered. While science could not link the peanut oil itself to positive benefits, the process of messaging the oil into the patient reduced pain by manipulating the muscles.

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Photographic print, Austin Curtis, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wilbur Donaldson and Frank Campsall Inspect Bottles of Peanut Oil, Tuskegee Institute, March 1938. THF213794

Healthy Communities
Building healthy communities started with individuals but grew through collective effort. Farm families, schools, businesses, church groups, and investors each committed resources to the cause. National intervention furthered local goals. The 1946 National School Lunch Act increased access to good food for all school children, not just those who could help themselves.

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Photographic Print, Cafeteria at George Washington Carver School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947. THF135671

Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, George Washington Carver, food, by Debra A. Reid, agriculture, African American history

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Luther Burbank at His Desk, 1915
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Luther Burbank overcame nature’s limitations to create more than 800 plants the world had never seen. 

Burbank experimented with plant reproduction to change the traits of plants. He considered himself a student in “Nature's school” and a lifelong learner. Through the power of observation, Burbank overcame the limits of nature to create new varieties of plants.

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Luther Burbank’s plant hybridization experiments led him to develop a plumcot: a cross between the plum and the apricot. THF275310

Luther Burbank used methods like selective breeding, cross-pollination, and hybridization in his experiments. In one famous example, he crossed a plum and an apricot to create a brand-new fruit: the plumcot. In another, he created a cactus with no spikes!

Burbank’s plant creations brought him fame. He amazed more formally trained scientists, and crowds of people showed up at his experimental gardens. The media described Burbank as a “plant wizard,” but he rejected that label. He argued that anyone could do what he did.

gallery-column
An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Luther Burbank, Rachel Carson, and George Washington Carver.

Learn more about Burbank’s life and work in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit explores

  • Grafting – a technique Burbank used to clone fruit varieties
  • The process of creating the famous Russet Burbank potato
  • Tools used by Luther Burbank in his work
  • Burbank’s work tracing the origins of corn to an ancient wild grass
  • Popular Burbank plant creations still sold today

technology, Henry Ford Museum, agriculture

Florida oranges on grocery store shelves in Minnesota. Fresh blueberries from Chile at fruit markets in New England -- in the middle of winter. Beef processed and packaged in Texas purchased and consumed by families in the Carolinas. Whether we realize it or not, our relationship with food is directly dependent on the transportation industry. And it has been for nearly 200 years.

“As the U.S. became more urbanized, the demand for fresh food shipped over long distances increased,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford. Before widespread adoption of refrigerated railcars after the Civil War, such variety of eats was unfathomable. People ate what was grown in their immediate area. Farming was a local endeavor. “Refrigerated cars revolutionized the agriculture industry,” said Anderson. A growing desire to move processed and packaged beef hundreds of miles, rather than a whole herd of living cattle, sparked the larger movement to cool things down inside the railcars.

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At first, refrigerator cars primarily shipped meat from Chicago to cities in the eastern United States. THF110235


The Henry Ford has a refrigerator car, built in 1924 for Fruit Growers Express, in its collection. Cooling was provided by ice, loaded through roof hatches into large compartments at each end of the car. Fans, driven by the car’s axles, helped to circulate the cool air. “I consider our Fruit Growers Express car to be the cornerstone of our food transportation collection,” said Anderson. “Refrigerator cars like this changed the American diet, permitting fresh produce and meat to be shipped anywhere in the U.S.” Discover how West Coast fruit growers marketed their produce to the new markets opened up by refrigerated rail transport in this blog post.

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Refrigerator cars enabled farmers in regions with extended growing seasons to market fresh produce, like California grapefruit, year-round across the country. THF295680

And while we’re talking about moving fruit and keeping it fresh, ponder this: When McDonald’s introduced sliced apples to its menu in 2011, it quickly became the largest purchaser of apple slices at 60 billion pounds per year. Give some thought to who grows all those apples and how they get where they need to go.

This post originally ran in the June-December 2015 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine

railroads, agriculture, food

Do you raise vegetables to feed yourself? If the answer is “Yes,” you are not alone. The National Gardening Survey reported that 77 percent of American households gardened in 2018, and the number of young gardeners (ages 18 to 34) increased exponentially from previous years. Why? Concern about food sources, an interest in healthy eating, and a DIY approach to problem solving motivate most to take up the trowel.

The process of raising vegetables to feed yourself carries with it a sense of urgency that many of us with kitchen cabinets full of canned goods cannot fathom. Farm families planted, cultivated, harvested, processed and consumed their own garden produce into the 20th century. This was hard but required work to satisfy their needs.

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Two members of the Lancaster Unit of Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association digging potatoes, 1918. THF 288960

Seed Sources
Gardeners need seeds. Before the mid-19th century, home gardeners saved their own seeds for the next year’s crop. If a disaster destroyed the next year’s seeds, home gardeners had to purchase seeds.

Commercial seed sales began as early as 1790 in the community of Shakers at Watervliet, New York. The Mt. Lebanon, New York, Shaker community established the Shaker Seed Company in 1794. The Watervliet Shakers first sold pre-packaged seeds in 1835, but the Mt. Lebanon community dominated the garden seed business until 1891. They marketed prepackaged seeds in boxes like this directly to store owners who sold to customers.

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Shakers Genuine Garden Seeds Box, 1861-1895. THF 173513

Satisfying the demand for garden seeds became big business. Entrepreneurs established seed farms and warehouses in cities where laborers cultivated, cleaned, stored and packaged seeds. The D.M. Ferry & Co. provides a good example.

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D.M. Ferry & Company Headquarters and Warehouse, Detroit, Michigan, circa 1880. THF76854

Entrepreneurs invested earnings into this lucrative industry.

Hiram Sibley, who made a fortune in telegraphy, and spent 16 years as president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, claimed to have the largest seed farm in the world, and an international production and distribution system based in Rochester, New York, and Chicago, Illinois. Though the company name changed, the techniques of prepackaging seeds developed by the Shakers at Watervliet and direct marketing of filled boxes to store owners remained an industry standard.

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Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888.
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Planting gardens requires prepackaged seeds (unless you save your own!). These little packets tell big stories about ingenuity and resourcefulness. We acquired this 1880s Sibley & Co. seed box from the Barnes Store in Rock Stream, NY in 1929.

The original Sibley seed papers and packets are on view in a replica Hiram Sibley & Co seed box in the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village, which our members and guests will be able to enjoy once again when we reopen. Until then, take a virtual trip to the store by way of Mo Rocca and Innovation Nation.

Looking for gardening inspiration? Historic seed and flower packets can provide plenty! Survey the hundreds of seed packets dated 1880s to the present in our digital collections and create your own virtual garden.

The variety might astound you, from the mangelwurzel (raised for livestock feed) to the Early Acme Tomato and the Giant Rocca Onion.

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Hiram Sibley & Co. “Beet Long Red Mangelwurtzel” Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF181520

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Hiram Sibley & Co. “Tomato Early Acme” Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF278980

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Hiram Sibley & Co. “Onion Giant Rocca” Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF279020

Families in cities often did not have land to cultivate, so they relied on the public markets and green grocers as the source of their vegetables.

Canned goods changed the relationships between gardeners and their responsibility for meeting their own food needs. Affordable and available canned goods made it easy for most to hang up their garden trowels. As a result, raising vegetables became a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity for most Americans by the 1930s.

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Can Label, “Butterfly Brand Stringless Beans,” circa 1880. THF293949

Times of crisis increase both personal interest and public investment in home-grown vegetables, as the national Victory Garden movements of the 20th century confirm.

Victory Gardens

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Man Inspecting Tomato Plant in Victory Garden, June 1944. THF273191

Victory Gardens, a patriotic act during World War I and World War II, provide important examples of food resourcefulness and ingenuity.

You can find your own inspiration from Victory Garden items in our collections – from 1918 posters to Ford Motor Company gardens during the 1930s, and home-front mobilization during World War II here.

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Woman's National Farm and Garden Association at Dedham Square Truck Market, 1918. THF288964

But the “fruits” of the garden didn’t just stay at home. Entrepreneurial-minded Americans took their goods to market, like these members of the National Women's Farm & Garden Association and their "pop-up" curbside market in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1918.

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Clara Ford with a Model of the Roadside Market She Designed, circa 1930. THF117982

Clara Ford, at one time a president of the Women’s National Farm and Garden Association (WNF&GA), also believed in the importance of eating local. Read more about her involvement with roadside markets here.

Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

food, agriculture, gardening, #THFCuratorChat, by Debra A. Reid

Take a look at this collection of segments from The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation focused on agriculture and the environment.
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The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, agriculture

thf213730George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, 1939 THF213730

George Washington Carver’s commitment to knowledge, serving the community, and making a difference drove his work as an influential agricultural scientist.

Carver loved plants as a child and studied them his entire life. Despite the many challenges he faced, he earned degrees in agricultural science and gained international recognition for his work.

In 1896, Carver began his 47-year career at Tuskegee Institute, a university in Alabama committed to educating African-Americans. There, he taught agricultural science, managed the school’s experimental farm, and researched better farming practices.

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One of the many bulletins Carver produced to help southern farmers THF288047

Carver shared his knowledge through practical instruction, “how-to” publications, and a mobile classroom. His research became the basis for lessons on improving the health and nutrition of the soil as well as the health and well-being of people and the livestock they tended.

Carver understood that farm families who raised cash crops like cotton had little time to grow food for themselves and no extra money to buy it. He identified hundreds of new uses for undervalued food crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes, which increased market opportunities and improved diets.

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An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Luther Burbank, Rachel Carson, and George Washington Carver.

Learn more about Carver’s remarkable career in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit explores

  • Bulletins produced by Carver to help southern farm families
  • Carver’s work to create nutrient-rich soil needed to grow healthy crops
  • Weeds – an untapped food source Carver liked to call “nature’s vegetables”
  • New products Carver developed from crops southern farmers already grew

agriculture, African American history, Henry Ford Museum, George Washington Carver

The Henry Ford acquired the Vegetable Building from Detroit's Central Farmers Market in 2003, saving it from demolition. Like the farmers markets of today, the Detroit Central Farmers Market was a gathering place – a commercial center, a hub of entrepreneurship and a community space where family, friends, and neighbors congregated and socialized. 

This farmers market can become a destination again, a resource for exploring America's agricultural past, present, and future. We need your help to make this happen. #PledgeYourPassion by making a gift this Giving Tuesday

Vegetable Building at Detroit Central Farmers Market, circa 1888.
Vegetable Building at Detroit Central Farmers Market, circa 1888. THF200604 

Learn more about the remarkable history of this important structure.  

The City of Detroit invested in a new permanent market building - this expansive vegetable hall - in 1860. Located at the east end of Michigan Avenue, just east of Woodward at Campus Martius, it was roughly four blocks square, extending from Woodward to Randolph. The major building in the market was the expansive vegetable building. Market gardeners, florists, orchardists, and nurserymen sold their produce from rented stalls between 1861 and 1893.  

The growth of Central Market reflects Detroit’s growth as a city. Much of Detroit’s early history revolved around its importance as a port and strategic location in the Great Lakes. During the 19th century, Detroit’s manufacturing base and its population grew rapidly, more than doubling every 10 years from just 2,222 people in 1830 to 45,619 in 1860. The Central Market was the first Detroit market not located by the docks, reflecting the city’s transition from a port town to a city. Farmers were now coming to Detroit to sell to city residents, rather than to ship produce to eastern cities.

1884 Sanborn insurance map of Central Market
This certified 1884 Sanborn insurance map shows the Central Market area, including the Vegetable Building and other shops. 

The Central Farmers Market began in 1843 as a simple shed built off the rear of the old City Hall building. Problems with traffic congestion caused by the market, along with the desire to make the prominent square more presentable, led newly elected Mayor Christian H. Buhl to pledge to build a new covered market building. The city hired local architect John Schaffer to develop plans. Schaffer’s design called for a “structure to be comprised of forty-eight iron columns supporting a wooden roof, [measuring] 70 by 242 feet from outside to outside.” The construction contract was awarded in June to Joel Gray at a cost of $5,312. In late September of 1860, the Detroit Free Press wrote: 

“The new market building in the rear of the City Hall is nearly competed and promises to be a fine structure. It covers the whole of the space occupied as a vegetable market, and consists of an open shed, the roof of which is supported on iron columns and a well-finished framework. The roof is of slate and cost about $1,500. It is designed in time to make a tile floor and erect fountains. The building will accommodate all the business of the market and will constitute an ornament as well as a great convenience to that important branch of city commerce.”

Carved wooden ornamentation on the Detroit Central Farmers Market building
Carved wooden ornamentation enhanced the appearance of the market building. THF113542 

In its first year, the market earned the city $1,127 in rent, covering 20% of the construction costs in one year. The building thrived as the vegetable market through the 1880s. The emergence of the Eastern Market, and the continuing desire to open the street to traffic, led the Common Council to decide to close the Central Market in 1892. In 1893 the Parks and Boulevards Commission, which operated Belle Isle, received approval to move the building to Belle Isle for use as a horse and vehicle shelter. The building was re-erected on Belle Isle in 1894. 

In later years it was converted to a riding stable – the sides were bricked in, the roof was altered to add clerestory windows to let in light, and an office and wash area was constructed in the south end. After the riding stable closed in 1963, the building was used to keep the horses of the Detroit Mounted Police, and then later used for storage. It was considered for demolition since the early 1970s. Over the summer of 2003, the building was dismantled and the parts from the original market building were preserved for re-erection in Greenfield Village.

Detroit Central Market building converted to a riding stable and moved to Belle Isle
After the market building was moved to Belle Isle, it was converted to a riding stable. It had been vacant for more than 20 years at the time of this photo. THF113549 

The Detroit Central Farmers Market vegetable building is a rare and important building. Because of fires and development pressures, wooden commercial buildings, particularly timber-framed buildings, rarely survive to the present in urban settings. This may be the only 19th century timber-frame market building surviving in the United States. Its move to Belle Isle saved it from demolition.

Historic view of the Detroit Central Farmers Market, taken in the late 1880s.
Historic view of the Detroit Central Farmers Market, taken in the late 1880s. THF96803 

The building is architecturally significant. It is an excellent expression of prevailing architectural tastes, as demonstrated by the Free Press review. It captures the rapidly changing world of building construction of the mid-19th century. The building represents the pinnacle of the timber framer’s craft; it is elegantly shaped and ornamented in a way that makes the frame itself the visual keystone of the design. It was built shortly before timber frame construction was eclipsed by the new balloon frame construction, which used dimensional lumber and nailed joints. The cast iron columns that support the timber-framed roof represent the newest in manufactured construction materials. Cast iron was the favorite material of the modern builder in the mid-19th century. It was easy to form into a variety of shapes, and ideal for adding ornamentation to buildings at a moderate cost. The columns in the market building have been formed to represent two different materials – the lower section resembles an elaborately carved stone column, while the upper section looks like the timber frame structure that it supports.

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Elegant joinery, supplemented by elaborated carvings, enhances the appearance of the timber frame. THF113530

Cast-iron columns on the Detroit Central Farmers Market building made to resemble stone below the capital and wood above the capital.
The cast-iron columns were made to resemble stone below the capital and wood above the capital. THF113505


The building captures the exuberance and optimism of the city of Detroit as it grew in its first wave from a frontier fort and outpost, to an important city. A “useful and beautiful” market building in the city’s central square was important to this image of this growing city – as evidenced by the fact that it took only nine months from Mayor Buhl’s inaugural address of January 11, 1860 promising a new market building, to its substantial completion. Few buildings survive from this first era of growth in the city of Detroit.  

For 30 years customers engaged with vendors at the Vegetable Building in Detroit's Central Market. For 110 years the building served the public in a variety of ways on Belle Isle. Your donation will help The Henry Ford rebuild this structure in the heart of Greenfield Village. There it will inspire future generations to learn about their food sources. Make history and #PledgeYourPassion this Giving Tuesday

Jim McCabe is Collections Manager at The Henry Ford.

 

philanthropy, farming, Michigan, Detroit, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Jim McCabe, shopping, agriculture