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Farmers on the Square: A Tradition

As the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has increased dramatically 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. Therefore, Farmers on the Square market, with its opportunity to buy fresh, local food directly from the farmers who raise it, plays an important role in Carlisle’s past, present and future.

The earliest farmers’ markets in America were simply a replication of the ancient markets staged in Europe. Boston held the first farmers’ market to appear on American soil 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, still continues this tradition today by signaling the opening of its market with the ringing of a bell each Wednesday at 3pm sharp.


Old Market Building, Carlisle

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 the Carlisle’s Square (where the new courthouse now stands) for the better part of the subsequent 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 the eminent statesman Benjamin Franklin engaged the town to assist in the colonists’ defense of what was then the frontier. It was a long frame building with plank flooring which still stood during the Revolutionary War. Later it was replaced in 1802 with an open, roofed building. This 1802 structure was then replaced with a similar building, albeit with brick flooring, after it blew down in a windstorm.


Inside the old market building on Market Square in Carlisle

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

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, when inside one had the 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), the loss of which echoes to this day.

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

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 has certainly persevered in its absence. In 2009, after 50 years in abeyance, the farmers’ market returned to Carlisle’s Square to great success and renewed popularity. Today, the Farmers’ on the Square ring in the opening of the market every Wednesday in the tradition of the original markets. In their second year, Carlisle’s Farmers on the Square continues in its role in the integral and cherished tradition of the Greater Carlisle community.

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