Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

The Market, Envisioned

August 3, 2021 Archive Insight
Long, low building in city square, surrounded by roads and other buildings

Central Market in Downtown Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890. / THF96803

As a 2021 Simmons intern at The Henry Ford, my experience, skillset, and reverence for community engagement, localization, and food justice combined into a recipe for growth.

I came to this work having spent the winter working with staff from The Henry Ford and a group of my peers on a script for a Central Market character that will debut in Greenfield Village in 2022. I also brought my knowledge of the local food environment, agroecological issues, museology, key contacts, and equity methodology. This confluence of background knowledge enabled me to envision a plan for weekly open-air historical markets in Greenfield Village that will preserve slow food culture in an urban environment. Ultimately, this has brought me one step closer to my career in designing and interpreting agroecological landscapes with communities before I head off to Burlington, Vermont, to start my PhD in Food Systems.

By now you have likely read of the reconstructed Central Market Vegetable Building in Greenfield Village. You may even know how The Henry Ford plans to bring it to life in Spring 2022 through the resurrection of historical markets for visitors to purchase fresh cut flowers, fruits, vegetables, and honey, or to pick up a cup of coffee and hear stories from market characters such as Mary Judge. This weekly educational market experience will offer a dozen growers a space to share their story, practices, and agricultural knowledge with highly engaged visitors, providing them access to the thousands of members and visitors who come to Greenfield Village every day.

Construction site with building framework, people, and construction equipment
Central Market vegetable shed reconstruction by Christian & Son, Inc. construction company on July 15, 2021. / Photo taken by Ayana Curran-Howes.

These markets will begin with a spring flower market in April 2022, where visitors can purchase lilies, pansies, and sweet peas, to name a few. This will whet the appetites of museumgoers for the weekly Saturday markets, from mid-June through mid-August, where 12-24 farmers (scaled up over time) will sell honey, fruit, vegetables, flowers, dairy, poultry, eggs, value-added items (like jams, pickles, salsa, and bread), and refreshments (such as coffee, cider, and donuts).

People stand at edge of low open building, shopping at stands displaying flowers and other products
People look at flowers for sale at the Central Market, undated (BHC glass neg. no. 2553). / Detail of image from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. (EB02e878)

I conducted historical research to answer the questions, “What fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs were being sold in the Central Market? When? By whom? Where in the market?” This work focused on bookending the market, looking extensively at the 1860s and 1890s. I conducted primary research using Michigan Farmer from the 1850s and 1860s, seed catalogs and nurserymen specimen books from The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the Detroit Free Press archives.

Woman watering plants from window, surrounded by flowers and text
Two children, one holding a piece of watermelon, among a variety of fruits and vegetables
D.M. Ferry & Co. Seed Annual Descriptive Catalogue, 1883, front and back covers. / 
THF620066, THF620067

Michigan Farmer journals were particularly helpful for identifying notable growers and specific varieties beloved by growers. In the 1863 Michigan Farmer, the most popular varieties of pears described for growers are Belle Lucrative, Flemish Beauty, and the Bartlett, which “deservedly stands without a rival.”  This journal also introduces growers to new varieties like Clapp’s Favorite, which is “similar to Bartlett in form, but less musky in flavor” (Michigan Farmer, October, 1863, pg. 162–163). These specific varieties will be important for prioritizing heritage varieties in the market, a key component of slow food culture.

three popular pears_Page_2
Description and depiction of pear varieties, Michigan Farmer, October 1863, pg. 163. / via Google Books, reproduced from the University of Michigan.

In order to paint a picture of what vendors sold within the market, we used city directories, George W. Hawes’ Michigan State Gazetteer, the Prairie Farmer Annual, Detroit Free Press advertisements, and some references to stall-keepers within newspaper articles from the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News. When we could identify what stalls individual hucksters, market gardeners, florists, butchers, and fishmongers occupied, we still had to discern where these stalls were located inside the vegetable shed. One Detroit News article was particularly helpful in orienting where certain types of vendors were situated: “Just at this time the southern row of stalls in the vegetable market is a center of floral radiance and beauty” (Detroit News, “Seen on the Streets,” May 24, 1891). Central Market shoppers found butchers in the Central Market building and fruit vendors on many corners around the market, and hired unskilled laborers, such as chimney sweeps, at the east entrance of the Central Market vegetable shed.

Color-coded real estate plot map
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan. / Sanborn Map Company, Vol. 2, 1884, with annotations by Ayana Curran-Howes.

Then, to bring this historical research forward, I had to identify key farmers, as well as community organizations and other markets, who should be involved—in order to ensure the longevity and impact of this initiative. To not remain purely about the past, but to connect the past to the present and inspire the future, we had to become aware of how this Central Market project would be perceived and could be supported by the incredible urban agriculture community that exists in Detroit today and in southeast Michigan at large.

Consequently, I crafted an interpretation plan to ensure the markets become a sustainable, vital part of the slow food movement in Southeast Michigan. This plan is grounded in several desires: to be seen by market gardeners as a profitable venture and by the community as an asset, to be relevant to the local food environment (e.g., not to be redundant or competitive with other local markets), and to be feasible for staff of The Henry Ford and participating farmers. Additionally, we want to make sure that the market both showcases the ingenuity of late 19th-century market gardeners and hucksters and continues to foster ingenuity in present-day farmers, as this is what helps them to thrive on the outskirts of the market economy.

Screenshot with slide with text and images above, and virtual-meeting profile photos of two people, plus others with initials only, below
Simmons intern Ayana Curran-Howes, presenting on July 22, 2021, to 30+ staff of The Henry Ford and affiliates, including Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, at the annual Historical Resources internship presentations, organized by Sophia Kloc (featured left), Office Administrator for Historical Resources. / Photo captured by Deirdre Hennebury, Associate Director of the Museum Studies Program at University of Michigan.

It was incredibly important to me to ensure this market will be accessible, supports the existing food movement, and propels marginalized farmers forward through the marketing and financial resources of The Henry Ford. For instance, one measure that is feasible for The Henry Ford’s staff and increases accessibility, both for food-insecure residents around the museum and for farmers, is an earlier start to the market. For those for whom  the entrance fee is a barrier, we hope to have help such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Senior Project FRESH, and other food assistance available.

This is also a significant component of larger initiatives underway. Jennifer Junkermeier-Khan, this year’s other Simmons intern, has drafted a five-year strategic plan to “Inspire and provide training for the next generation of food entrepreneurs, innovators, and visionaries with a focus on sustainability, health, and social justice.” Community engagement is one of four pillars of this plan and is imperative for making the Central Market vegetable building installation a springboard into a new era for The Henry Ford: an era that not only speaks openly about difficult histories, including violence and racism (past and present) in the food system, but also seeks to create a counter-narrative and opportunities for social justice hyper-locally.

Consequently, we want this work to be founded in equity from the start, given the legacy of—and ongoing—racism within our food system and market economy. This will require long-term relationship development with the surrounding community and careful selection of vendors. Thus, I created criteria for selecting vendors to ensure that farmers who can benefit the most are approached, as well as those who have knowledge to share with visitors on farming practices, produce varieties, and their own cultural and food traditions. Some of the criteria for vendors include whether they are minority-owned and -operated; using family or fair-wage labor; using integrated pest management, mixed livestock-crop, and no-till systems; and growing heritage varieties and breeds.

This historic marketplace will allow growers to develop their narrative around their practices, varieties, and cultural heritage, immortalizing their stories and recording their history in ways they are not currently captured and appreciated.

Not many growers specialize in heirloom varieties in this area—this may be something they are interested in but are not currently growing due to slow production, financial costs, and lack of demand from consumers. By incentivizing and making heirlooms more visible, we can increase demand by consumers and increase their feasibility for farmers.

Lastly, for the Central Market vegetable building and its weekly markets to have a lasting impact on visitors and lead to the food systems change we hope to see, they have to have a “big idea” and a few key messages. Within broader institutional initiatives, the Central Market will “transform relationships between consumers and the origins of their food through immersive historic market educational experiences that center the stories of diverse producers, past and present, to progress slow food culture.” This big idea will be supported by key messages for visitors to take home with them.

First, the current industrial agricultural system supports fast food culture. This harms the environment through soil erosion and nutrient degradation. It is also extremely inefficient at producing “real” food. Vast monocultures (or the cultivation of single crops in a given area) occupy most agricultural lands in the United States, resulting in products used for biofuels, animal feed, and processed foods. Our current agricultural system is also discriminatory and disconnects consumers from their food and those who produce it.

Second, slow food culture, preserved and practiced in museum spaces, and led by diverse producers in the local food environment, can heal this metabolic and sociocultural rift. This is done in large part by the replacement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with heirloom crops and livestock bred to produce way beyond their bodily means with heritage varieties. With the preservation of genetic diversity through heritage and heirloom crops, farmers gain resilience against climate change. Diversity protects farmers against devastation to their crops and provides environmental benefits like erosion prevention. Growing heirlooms can also improve human health through the nutritional quality of food and can preserve cultural heritages. “Every culture in the world has a history of growing and cooking food for health, taste, beauty, and affordability,” and it is our goal to be a part of active preservation—not simply in the museum’s collections for perpetuity, but practiced in real time (Waters et al. 2021, pg. 118).

Three women pose in front of flowerbeds and a red brick building with white-pillared porch and balcony
Simmons Interns Jennifer Junkermeier-Khan (left) and Ayana Curran-Howes (right), with Debra Reid, advisor and The Henry Ford’s Curator for Agriculture and the Environment. / Taken July 15, 2021, outside Lovett Hall at The Henry Ford.

Many genes incorporated into GMOs are stolen (biopiracy) from indigenous varieties, so that corporations profit from centuries of stewardship and plant knowledge by Black, Indigenous, Latina/o, and other marginalized groups (Shiva, 2016). Taking practices out of context and without the wisdom of those who stewarded them into existence only ensures that they are co-opted and watered down. Thus, the third key message of the Central Market vegetable building and its weekly markets is that social justice and supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) farmers is restorative agriculture, and the practices of restorative agricultural practices are only carried forward from the past by diverse producers.

Lastly, visitors will walk away with an understanding and appreciation for public markets, where entrepreneurship, opportunity, struggle, and community all collide. All these messages will be told through the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes at the market—through performances, signage, and experiences, such as cooking demonstrations and magicians roaming the market vying for visitors’ attention.

Sources


Shiva, Vandana. Who Really Feeds the World?: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology. North Atlantic Books, 2016.

Waters, Alice, et al. We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto. Penguin Press, 2021.


Ayana Curran-Howes is 2021 Simmons Intern at The Henry Ford.

by Ayana Curran Howes, shopping, Michigan, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, food, farming, events, Detroit Central Market, Detroit, agriculture, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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