Nearly A Quarter Century: History of South Shore Farmers Market
By Kathy Mulvey
In 1998, several Bay View residents came to the South Shore Park Watch (SSPW) and asked for help to organize a farmers market to be held in the park. As it happened, SSPW 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, now known as the South Shore Farmers Market (SSFM), launched as a committee of SSPW.
About a dozen neighbors, 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. 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 pitched the idea to the attendees and after questions and dialogue, most were enthusiastic supporters of the plan and a committee was formed.
An agreement was struck with the Milwaukee County Parks Department to hold the market in South Shore Park. A key decision was made by SSFM committee members to only allow food and food products at the market – no crafts – and decided to waive vendor participation fees that first summer. A Wisconsin farmers market vendor list was secured and with South Shore Park at the center, a 50 mi radius was drawn, to identify and invite vendors from the area.
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 (Wildflour celebrated their final year in 2021). Others first market vendors 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 to date.
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. We’re hoping to get back to that soon!
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, Mike O’Toole, Anne Temple and Elisabeth Gasparsky.
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 extended our season into October at the request of the vendors and customers. The Vendor Committee carefully selected new vendors each year from a very long waiting list. They chose vendors who offered something different, for interest, and also to support balanced supply and demand. Diversity and inclusion is also a part of the selection process. We’ve enjoyed the regular and new offerings each year!
2010 – Averaged up to 2,000 market-goers each week
2011 – With such popularity, a candidate for 14th District Alderman featured a picture of the market in his campaign literature, sporting the slogan: “What could we accomplish together?”
2012 – Always in the top three, named Best of Milwaukee in the Shepherd Express’ annual popular vote. Also registered first 3,000 single-day attendee mark
2013 – 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 – Expanded the number of vendors and footprint in the park. Additional revenue used to fund projects in South Shore Park. The first project was a Little Free Library, built and installed by Mark Budnik. Re-seed and tree planting remain ongoing.
2017 – 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 – Celebrated the 20th anniversary. Welcomed 40,000 shoppers over the course of the season, with a daily average of 2,300 people.
2019 – With almost perfect weather each Saturday, 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 organized 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.
2021 – While the ongoing pandemic impacts the market, SSFM finds the best of both worlds in its new evolution. Entertainment returned, to the delight of all, as did the allowance of dogs, delighting cooped up pooches and owners and many children. The spacious format of 2020 is maintained, along with updated safety measures in line with Milwaukee County recommendations. The well-received SNAP/EBT and money exchange program is extended thanks to Bay View Community Center and volunteers!
2022 – A great 24th season awaits!
Current and founding committee member Stephanie Harling sums up the experience well, “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.”