Market Play

Before grocery stores, open-air markets were the major source of food in Detroit.
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Western Market
Scents Of A City: Western Market was located west of Michigan Central Station and was active until the I-75 and I-96 freeway interchange was built in the 1960s. // Photos courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library

Back in the 1880s, a snowy winter benefited Detroiters by expediting commerce. “An open winter, in which frost and snow were mysteriously absent, was regarded as a menace to health and a curse to business,” George W. Stark wrote in his 1939 historical collection, “In Old Detroit.” Frost and snow, meanwhile, let farmers dash right into the city in their horse-drawn sleighs, and they headed for Cadillac Square.

“(It) would be their Mecca,” Stark wrote, “and there is still a vision of the old market on the square piled high with venison, rabbits, and wild turkeys.” He referred to Central Market, also known as Farmer’s Market. “Saturday was the big day when the city folks went to market to haggle for the produce of the fields, the woods, and the farms brought in by the bob sleigh route.”

For five decades starting in 1841, Central Market operated weekdays and Saturdays at Woodward Avenue at Cadillac Square. Grocers arrived early to select choice items for resale; up to 15,000 patrons were the norm after 8 a.m. on Saturday. In his recent book, “Detroit: Engine of America,” author R.J. King calls the market “a natural offspring from the butchers who occupied the lower level of city hall when it opened in 1835.”

Central Market wasn’t Detroit’s first public market. In the early 1800s, as George Catlin records in “The Story of Detroit,” a market building went up in the middle of Woodward Avenue “just below Jefferson Avenue.” Tuesdays and Saturdays were the big days. Police ordered hucksters’ wagons away in order to eliminate competition against vendors who rented stalls. A weighmaster ensured that measures were true, anyone purveying “unwholesome” meats was cited, and the “sale of produce at any other place than the market, on market days, was punishable by a fine of $5.”

The Berthelet Market, apparently a successor to the Woodward market, stood at the foot of Randolph Street. It burned down in 1848, and trade shifted to Washington Market on Larned Street. But Central Market emerged as the primary venue, especially after accommodations improved in 1875. Four shed-like buildings stretched eastward for 100 yards from the foot of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, finished in 1872 in what became Cadillac Square.

Central Market
Central Market sprung from butcher stalls set beneath City Hall starting in 1835.

Vendors learned to cater to disparate ethnic groups, and the city pushed for improvements such as sewer lines to each stall, allowing the sale of fish for the first time. Heat from stoves, and later from steam, further improved conditions. Lighting came first from candles, then gas lamps, and finally electric bulbs in 1882.

Drovers brought cattle into the city for sale and slaughter. A July 27, 1875, newspaper records 21 drovers that day with 398 cattle, while “sundry persons” accounted for another 19 head. In the years before rail, drovers walked their herds into the city. Slaughter was sometimes conducted on an informal basis in alleys and neighborhoods, but the activity was generally centralized in abattoirs.

Central Market was congested, stinky, and rat-infested. The city council decided in 1891 to close it and disperse business to the new 43-acre Eastern Market and the Western Market, at 18th Street and Michigan Avenue. Furious butchers squatted in Central Market for a couple of years, but the city finally thwarted them, and the public adapted to the newer markets — including the Chene-Ferry Market.

Western Market gave way to a Fisher Freeway interchange in 1965. Chene-Ferry closed in the 1980s, leaving Eastern Market as the only extant public market in Detroit. Old Western Market, LLC was incorporated in 2019, with an eye toward re-establishing the former market, but development has yet to move forward.

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