When Cities Expelled Farmers

The Henry Ford opened a reconstructed open-air vegetable shed in its open-air museum, Greenfield Village, in April 2022. At its origins, the Detroit Common Council invested in this structure to facilitate direct sales between growers and customers. It operated as part of Detroit’s City Hall Market (also called Central Market) for thirty years, between April 1861 and February 1894.

This building is the hub of The Henry Ford’s Edible Education initiative. The overarching goal focuses on historic resources (like the vegetable shed) as a launch pad for envisioning a local food environment based in regenerative agriculture and dedicated to equal food access in the Detroit area, in Michigan, and in the Great Lakes region. This is a tall order and one that starts by recognizing that this public market structure helps explain how farmers became invisible in the urban food chain. When it operated, customers knew where their food came from. It closed because city officials banned farm and market wagons from the center of Detroit in 1888 and relocated the public vegetable markets east and west of the downtown. This coincided with other changes in food processing that increased the distance between consumers and growers. These included processed foods, pure food and drug laws that made science and not growers the arbiters of purity, and private wholesale and retail grocers who replaced hucksters as the middlemen between the farm fields and the food on the dining room table.

The shift in Detroit from a regulated public market to food procurement and distribution as a private enterprise fit a pattern. Officials in other cities established public markets that guaranteed relatively low-cost market stalls to growers within a confined and regulated space. Within these spaces, growers sold quality goods directly to customers at affordable prices, and in sanitary conditions. Catering to the needs of growers helped eliminate middlemen or “hucksters” who bought foodstuffs that growers did not sell and resold the items at a profit. Consolidating growers in one market structure reduced the likelihood of price wars (or if price wars occurred, customers saw it happen in real time). Today this arrangement is called a “local food environment,” a system that facilitates access to food within a close distance to where it was grown.

Those who study public markets point to the 1880s as a time when the local food environment ideal gave way. In fact, cracks in the Detroit system appeared earlier. The male city officials formalized the market economy with structures and laws that defined spaces, set stall rents, daily hours of operation, and appointed market managers. An informal economy operated outside these regulations, but the lack of evidence of the informal market economy makes it less overt in historic records. Female hucksters, for example, operated outside the formal economy from at least the start of the City Hall Market in 1835, even though the city directories and minutes of the Detroit Common Council meetings rarely mention women and formal market roles until 1864. Yet, hucksters played a critical role in daily public markets because growers just could not commit to such an obligation and still raise food for sale.

The death blow to the local food environment in Detroit’s city center came in 1888, not from the invaluable role that hucksters played in the system, but because of growing opposition to farmers in the city. Then City officials banned farm & market wagons from downtown and shifted the public market locations further west and east of the city center. It took nearly six years to accomplish this goal, but by February 1894 members of Detroit’s elected council forcefully evicted the butchers from the meat market and the hucksters from the vegetable shed and began physically dismantling the structures. The vegetable shed survived because it was reused as a horse shelter on Belle Isle, a public park in the center of the Detroit River. There it served other purposes until it was saved from demolition and acquired by The Henry Ford in 2003.

In conclusion, city officials used public markets to ensure residents had access to fresh produce including fruits, vegetables, meat and wild game, but this public investment waned by 1880. The 1888 ban on farm and market wagons in the city center coincided with a shift from growers to science as the arbiter of food purity, and away from centralized access to fresh produce and toward privately owned and operated grocery stores and processed foods. Benjamin Cohen has written about this in Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Mass-Produced Food (2019). Detroit’s public market and its demise confirm the point when rural and agricultural became invisible in urban contexts. Even though public markets survived, reconnecting rural and agriculture to local food environments remains a work in progress. This is the work that Edible Education seeks to do.


Cohen, Benjamin R. Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Mass-Produced Food. University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Pyle, Jane. “Farmers’ Markets in the United States: Functional Anachronisms,” Geographical Review 61, No. 2 (April 1971), pp. 167-197

Reid, Debra A. “Female Hucksters and Produce Markets in the Great Lakes Region, 1830s-1890s,” Middle West Review 9, no. 2 (Spring 2023) forthcoming.

“Market Day: The Historic Detroit Central Market’s Vegetable Shed Will Re-Create a Local Food Environment Within Greenfield Village,” THF Magazine (Winter 2021), pgs. 34-45, available at https://issuu.com/thfmagazine/docs/thf-mag_winter-2021_issuu_f1

Sauder, Robert A. “The Origin and Spread of the Public Market System in New Orleans,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 22, No. 3 (Summer, 1981), pp. 281-297

Author: Debra A. Reid, Secretary General, AIMA

Editor’s Note: Article originally published in AIMA Newsletter N°17, reproduced here with permission of the author.