A look back at more than 200 years of the Charlottetown Farmers' Market

The Charlottetown Farmers' Market had been a community gathering spot long before its current home on Belvedere Avenue across from UPEI was built in 1985. 

Did you know the market has a history that dates back more than 200 years? And that for most of that time, the market was in the centre of downtown?

"It's a community hub, it's a way of life," said current market manager Bernie Plourde. "It's a bit like it was back 200 years ago, where the town folk would go to the market and buy their wares. And the money would mostly stay within the community." 

The first market was built in 1813 at the centre of Queen Square, where Province House is now.

It was a two-storey wooden building, just 18 by 26 feet, and was built with just £42 in government funds. 

Local farmers came to sell everything from mutton and pork, trout and partridge, to pigeons, rabbits, grain, produce and hay. 

The round market

The market quickly outgrew the building and a new, circular one was built 10 years later. It was divided into 12 equal bays.

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Farmers would simply pull up their loads of goods, right in the centre of town, and trade outside on market days — usually Wednesdays and Saturdays. 

Inside the round market, there were butcher stalls and space to sell items like eggs and butter. 

Plourde said records show that in 1826, there was an especially notable item for sale: three bottles of ketchup!  "The only processed food listed — there's no mention of jams or jellies until 1827!" he said.

The round market was moved to one side around 1842, to make way for the construction of the Colonial Building — what is now called Province House. A railing around the round market was added around 1855.

As Charlottetown grew, there was debate about whether the market should be moved to a less urban location, but the city decided to keep it on what is still called Market Square.

In 1860, Plourde said the market was even visited by The Prince of Wales, the royal who became King Edward VII.

Kevin Yarr/CBC

The city's growth prompted plans for a much larger, fancier market, but historians say its construction was delayed for six years by debate over who should pay for it — the city or the province. 

It was designed by renowned Charlottetown furniture-maker (and city councillor) Mark Butcher. The two-storey Butcher Market House opened in 1867.

Inside, it was divided into three sections: one for butchers, one for produce and one for flour and meal. On the second floor it had a public hall with a stage, where gatherings, concerts and speeches were held, including a visit from famed playwright Oscar Wilde in 1882, according to the city's records. 

The Butcher Market burned down in 1902, 35 years after it was built.

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Famed and prolific P.E.I. architect William Critchlow Harris competed with C.B. Chappell (who designed city hall, built in 1888) to design the fourth and final downtown market building. It was made of Island sandstone, and opened in 1904. 

For the first time, the market had a concrete floor. And like the previous market, it had space inside for vendors and a large hall for public gatherings and a theatre on the second floor. When motion pictures were invented, the public hall also served as a movie theatre. 

"For a long time, the market was as much a community hub as it was a commercial space — a place where citizens met and organized for political and cultural causes," said Matthew McRae, curator of history for the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation. 

The Butcher Market also housed civic offices for a time, including the Charlottetown police station. Big Donald, the bell now out in front of City Hall, was first hung atop it, "which makes Big Donald perhaps the only remaining tangible material connections to a building that used to be at the very heart of Charlottetown's commercial and civic life," said McRae. 

By the 1950s the way people shopped for food had changed, though. Processed food was popular, and more people had cars to take them to grocery stores. Farmers no longer needed to travel to town to sell their produce. 

The Harris Market building was little-used when it burned in 1958.

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Soon after, the Confederation Centre of the Arts was built to celebrate 100 years of Confederation. It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1964. 

After that, Plourde said there was no official gathering spot for farmers to gather to sell their goods in Charlottetown for more than a decade. 

But in 1978 the Charlottetown Farmers' Market formed as a not-for-profit co-operative, with a board of seven directors elected at its annual meetings, Plourde said. 

Wanted to build on waterfront

For the first few years, the market co-op didn't have a permanent home, and was held in places like the parking lot of Easton's on Kent Street, by the courthouse on the waterfront, and at the empty Charlottetown train station (which was eventually purchased by the Workers Compensation Board for office space).

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The board tried to secure land on the Charlottetown waterfront that had been used by the railways, Plourde said, but after much talking there was no agreement.

So in March 1985, the market secured a lease on a few acres of federal government land on Belvedere Avenue in Charlottetown, and built its current building with some financial help from the federal and provincial governments. The city of Charlottetown says the first building cost $200,000 and was expanded in 2006 at a cost of $70,000.

The market is home to more than 60 vendors, who sell everything from cheese and meat to vegetables, baked goods, flowers and art. 

Attendance has boomed in the last few decades — about 2,000 people on average visit it every Saturday — and the co-op was able to pay off the building's mortgage, Plourde said.

He said a new demographic is now enjoying the market including high school and university students, as well as immigrants and young families. 

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Revenue from rents from vendors covers upkeep and Plourde's salary. And the co-op applies for program grants for things like food education and food security for low-income families. 

"There's a lot of competition now with people being able to purchase online," Plourde said.

"It's just great to see that we still have a lot of support for people wanting to take a breath, come to the market, take their time shopping, be part of the community, and maybe worry less about convenience." 

Future in limbo

The future of the market has become somewhat unclear, however.

John Robertson/CBC

Plourde said the co-op shopped around in the last few years for a larger space to accommodate its long waiting list of vendors, but wasn't able to find anything in its price range.

The co-op's lease on its hectare of land, part of the old Agriculture Canada experimental farm, ran out. When it applied last year to renew the lease for five years, that triggered a process under which the government must consult Indigenous people on Crown land transactions. 

Now it is waiting for Agriculture Canada and P.E.I.'s Mi'kmaq people to meet, discuss and decide the future of the land. 

"We feel hopeful. We've been here 35 years," Plourde said.

He said the co-op is hoping the lease can be secured within the next year.

"We hope that we'll be here for another 35 years," he said.

Shane Ross/CBC

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