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Farmers on the Square: A Tradition

As the number of farmers markets in the United States has increased in recent years, Farmers on the Square in Carlisle PA stands out for its preservation of an esteemed and longstanding tradition. The Borough of Carlisle has been synonymous with the public farmers market from the moment of its establishment. As a result, Farmers on the Square, by providing an opportunity to buy fresh and local food directly from the farmers who raise it, plays an important role in Carlisle’s past, present, and future.

Cultural Origins, 1634-1751

The earliest farmers markets in what is now the United States were simply a replication of the ancient markets staged in Europe. Boston held the first colonial farmers market in 1634, while Pennsylvania’s inaugural market entered the scene in Philadelphia in 1693. In keeping with the latter city’s ethos of deliberate preparation it surpassed all others in making its market a considerably planned and regulated event, one which launched with flair each market day with the ringing of bells. Farmers on the Square continues this tradition today by signaling the opening of the market by ringing a bell each Wednesday at 3pm sharp.

 

Carlisle's Old Market Buildings, 1751-1952

Carlisle, originally a trading post but soon to become the heart of settlement in the Cumberland Valley, was fashioned in its very design to house a farmers market in the town square. At the town’s inception in 1751, the heirs of the Commonwealth’s eponymous founder, William Penn, deeded the public Square to include, along with two churches and a courthouse, a public market. A market house, in one form or another, occupied the southeast corner of Carlisle’s square (where the Cumberland County Courthouse now stands) for the better part of the next 260 years.  The first structure to house the farmer’s market is believed to have stood on the square during the French and Indian War, when eminent statesman Benjamin Franklin engaged the town to assist in the colonists’ defense of what was, at the time, the "frontier" for colonial settlers. This first market building was a long frame building with plank flooring, which stood through the Revolutionary War. In 1802, it was replaced with an open, roofed building. This 1802 structure was then replaced with a similar building, albeit with brick flooring, after blowing down in a windstorm.

The last permanent building to house Carlisle’s farmers market was built in 1878, a rather magnificent brick edifice that was nothing if not an indelible landmark for the town. The Carlisle Market House had four towered corners, each different, with the tallest reaching 60 feet in height. Reportedly, one inside this building had a sense of “standing within a large cathedral.” This veritable bastion was demolished in 1952 despite vehement protest from local citizens (following closure by the state for alleged structural instability), a loss which echoes to this day.

Inside the Old Market Buildings on Market Square

From the beginning, Carlisle’s farmers market has been held every Wednesday. Originally, the market opened at 2 a.m. and closed at 6 a.m. This allowed the farmers to sell their wares before a full day of tending to their farms, while providing area retailers the opportunity to purchase products to resell before their stores opened for the day. Later in the nineteenth century, the market would open at 4 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter, and warmth was procured by surrounding the stalls with lanterns.

Continuing the Tradition, 2009-Present

The Carlisle farmers market, in the words of the Carlisle Sentinel, “was once the town’s hub commercially and socially,” and the demand for farm-fresh food persevered in its absence. In 2009, after more than 50 years in abeyance and thanks to significant effort by a dedicated group of community members, the farmers market returned to Carlisle’s square and found great success. Today, Farmers on the Square rings in the opening of the market every Wednesday in the tradition of the original markets. Now in its fourteenth year, Farmers on the Square continues its role as an integral and cherished tradition of the Greater Carlisle community.

As illustrated by its name, Farmers on the Square maintains the traditional marketplace location, now calling home the first block of North Hanover Street. The busy market is now held in front of the borough’s historic First Presbyterian Church, diagonally across the square from the market’s original home.

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