HISTORY OF SOUTH SHORE FARMERS’ MARKET
In this season of Covid-19, the South Shore Farmers’ Market is meeting every week, but it is not its usual ebullient self. No children dancing to live music, no families and neighbors lingering over coffee and sandwiches. No dogs preening under the admiration of visitors.
It took innumerable Zoom meetings, but the market committee is glad that we have been able to provide fresh food for our customers and income for our vendors. We appreciate that so many of our neighbors come and observe the restrictions necessary for safety. And we are so grateful to the volunteers who have stepped up to help.
One very welcome development in the 2020 season has been a partnership with the Bay View Community Center, who come every week, set up their tent and exchange market tokens for cash or credit card purchase, allowing us – at last – to provide for SNAP and WIC food purchases. We also hired two compliance managers who help patrons remember to distance and wear masks.
The market celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019, and this seems like a good time to reflect on how the market came to be, how it has grown and flowered over the years, and why we think it is so important to have it continue, even in reduced circumstances.
In 1998, several Bay View residents came to the South Shore Park Watch and asked for help to organize a farmers’ market to be held in the park. As it happened, the Park Watch had been seeking activities that would bring area residents together in the park (can you believe, there was precious little activity in the park in those days?) So, the Farmers’ Market at South Shore Park (the name later was changed to South Shore Farmers’ Market), became a committee of the Park Watch.
A group of about a dozen started meeting. We sought advice from other recently-formed farmers’ markets, and the Hunger Task Force, which was assisting farmers’ markets and had organized a coalition of markets, was super helpful. Here is a list of at least most of those original volunteers: Mike Spott, Stephanie Harling, Julie Trelour, Kathy and Frank Mulvey, Angie Tornes and Mark Budnik, Marleen Stevens, Lyn Graziano, Cindy Secker, Cheryl Rosinski, Amy and Kurt Mihelich, Mary Ann Sobkowiak, Kathy Vandenberg, and Bill Lavelette.
Our goals were: (1) to provide a fun, relaxed place for Bay View residents to gather and exchange information, and (2) to connect the urban market with the rural marketplace, making fresh, affordable produce available to the community, and helping to support Wisconsin farmers and other vendors.
Additional volunteers signed up at a well-attended meeting at the South Shore Pavilion in February 1999. Volunteers had personally visited each home bordering the market area, talking with and hand- delivering invitations to residents. Mike Spott prepared and gave a PowerPoint presentation of what we had planned. Those attending had a chance to ask questions and add their own suggestions, and by the end of the evening, most people were enthusiastic about the market.
The committee made an agreement with the Milwaukee County Parks Department to hold the market in the park. We made the important decision to only allow food and food products at the market – no crafts. We had decided not to charge vendors a participation fee that first summer. We had secured a list of vendors from all farmers’ markets in Wisconsin. With South Shore Park at the center, we drew a circle representing 50 miles, and we sent letters inviting all the vendors in that circle to attend the first summer of our market.
Early in the morning on July 24, 1999, our volunteers waited in the park to greet the vendors and help them set up. Actually, we were not sure how many – if any of them – would show up. But six adventuresome vendors did come: They included Dolly Mertens of Wildflour Bakery and Henry Kiesow of Flower Petals – both of whom have not missed a season since. Others at that first market were growers Tou Xiong from Racine County and Lisa Kent from Columbia County, Bay View’s own Hi-Fi Café with coffee and rolls, and another grower from Mayville, whose name has been lost to history, unless someone out there remembers.
Our sponsors the first year were Chiropractic Health and Wellness, Inter-Organizational Council of Bay View, Milwaukee Forge, Contemporary Catering, Pick ‘n Save and Bay View Printing. We used the sponsorship money to pay for insurance and posters, flyers, signs and ads, all designed by volunteer Sue Boyle, who still does the honors each year. Eventually, we were able to purchase two tents, two tables, four chairs, a first-aid pack and a fire extinguisher. We were living high!
In future seasons, we even were able to pay our musicians. The first year featured mostly home-grown artists who were willing to contribute, such as David HB Drake, Two Violins and a Cello, United Methodist Church Bell Choir and Fritsche Middle School Marching Band.
From the beginning, the first Saturday in August hosted National Day Out at the market. The South Shore Park Watch previously had held this event inside the pavilion, and invited all Bay View organizations to have information tables, along with food and music. But the group and market organizers agreed there would be better exposure at the market. At least for a few years, each market also featured a cooking demonstration, children’s activity or an informational program. Amy Mihelich, organized the music and programs for several seasons. Then Mark Budnik, a musician himself, expanded the musical organizing, and persuaded the market to purchase better sound equipment. He is still at it.
By the end of the first season, we averaged 12 to 15 vendors and about 600 customers at each market. As we planned for the next season, we realized we needed to hire a manager, and Cindy Secker did the honors. She developed guidelines and task lists for future managers. At first, managers came from within the ranks, including Katie Williams (four years!) Stephanie Harling, and Kathy Mulvey. After that, we organized a personnel committee, advertised for applicants and hired Adam Horwitz, and then Chad Van Dierindonk and later, Ann Hippensteel. Chad and Ann still share managerial duties in 2020.
By the 2004 season, we began inviting all vendors to a luncheon following the last market of the year. Food was served up by members of the Market Committee. It has become a cherished tradition, offering a non-business place for volunteers and managers and vendors to get to know one another on a personal level.
To build up attendance at the market, we advertised in local publications and handed out flyers from a borrowed and decorated truck in the Humboldt Park 4th of July Parade and the South Shore Frolics Parade. Each spring, we requested space for a display featuring the market in the entry area of the Bay View Library. In the 2007 season, we had a student intern from Alverno College, who, among other things, published a one-page hand-out newsletter each week, featuring short stories about vendors, produce of the week and recipe of the week. We just didn’t have the manpower to continue that popular newsletter, but by the end of the 2007 season, we were averaging 42 vendors and 1,500 customers at each market.
Over these early years, several members of the original committee moved on, but new members joined with their fresh ideas and willing hearts: Brigid, Globenski, Mary Beth Driscoll and Mike O’Toole. Another new member – Ann Temple — had volunteered at times anyway and recently signed on as an organizing committee member.
We celebrated our 10th Anniversary on June 21, 2008. Mayor Tom Barrett, County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevik, Alderman Tony Zielinski, State Representative Chris Sinicki and School Board Representative Terry Falk – all frequent visitors to the market – were on hand with proclamations saluting the market. Free cake was served up to all in attendance.
It had been several years of rapid growth, and we also extended our season into October at the request of the vendors and customers. We hired not just one but two managers so they could share duties. Our Vendor Committee carefully began selecting new vendors from a very long waiting list. They chose vendors who offered something different, rather than supplying more baked goods, for example, than our customers could support. We also made efforts to choose vendors with various racial and social backgrounds.
The next decade tells a story of growth and development, both in numbers of those attending the market and in the scope of market activities.
2010 – We averaged up to 2,000 market-goers each week.
2011 – The market had become so popular that a candidate for 14th District Alderman used a picture of the market in his campaign literature, sporting the slogan: “What could we accomplish together?”
2012 – The South Shore Farmers’ Market, always in the top three, was named Best of Milwaukee in the Shepherd Express’ annual popular vote. We also registered our first 3,000 count of single-day attendees.
2013 – The market issued “Hot Licks and Lettuce,” a 17-song music CD featuring 10 bluegrass, jazz, folk, belly-dancing and other artists, recorded in their market performances by Jim Griffith and Mark Budnik. The CD is still available at the market. Also that year, organ grinder John Miller began showing up each morning to welcome people to the market with his German-made instrument.
2015 – To accommodate the growth of consumers at the market, we expanded the number of vendors and the market’s footprint in the park. We used the additional money from vendor fees to begin projects to help the cash-strapped park. The first project was a Little Free Library, built and installed by Mark Budnik. We planned two more projects, which are still in progress, and hope to begin planting new trees each year to replace the 30 or more trees that have been cut down in recent years.
2017 – We marked the loss of the Wisconsin Champion European Beech Tree, which dominated the north end of the park near Estes Street. The tree was estimated to have been planted shortly after 1835, when Elijah and Zebiah Estes purchased the land for their farm
2018 – We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the South Shore Farmers’ Market. This year, we had over 40,000 shoppers over the course of the season, with a daily average of 2,300 people.
2019 – We had almost perfect weather each Saturday, and our official tally for the season was a remarkable 50,000 shoppers, averaging almost 2,500 people per market day.
2020 – A remarkable year, not because of a bumper crop yield, but because SSFM managers organize with public officials to determine Covid-19 Safety Guidelines during the unprecedented global pandemic in order to host the 22nd year of the farmers market. In addition to heightened safety protocols, the market collaborated with Bay View Community Center to offer a credit card to coin exchange and offer SNAP/EBT benefits to patrons.
Stephanie Harling’s comment, printed in the Bay View Compass, neatly ties up the feelings for all the market committee member and volunteers: “It’s been amazing to be at the market every Saturday and see the families that come to the market grow each year, to see the babies grow up to become young adults…. Hopefully, they will carry fond memories of Saturday mornings in the park. I’m looking forward to the day when some of them take the torch from us and can experience what it is to create something that fosters community.”