Authorized by local men, organized by local women, Henderson County's Curb Market has been selling with success since 1924. Elizabeth Engelhardt pierces through the nostalgia, naming names.
My strongest childhood memory of Henderson County, North Carolina’s Curb Market is the slightly musty smell of birds’ nests and dried gourds that I found so fascinating. Located on Church Street in a low-slung, long concrete building one block off of Hendersonville’s Main Street, the curb market was always shaded and cooler than the summer’s heat. My mother was there for fresh spring greens and strawberries, later summer tomatoes and corn, and whatever half runners were in season, but to get them, we had to come before nine. For the most part, we passed by the rag rugs and hand-carved walking canes, but every once in a while, a pound cake or bouquet of wild flowers made its way into our basket. I remember my mother worrying when she saw endangered trailing arbutus, too much harvested galax, or a particularly rare nest in someone’s booth, but, fortunately, these were not often for sale.
In the 1970s, the Curb Market seemed a natural and ordinary part of life. Old men wore their overalls and tiny women dressed in gingham without irony. These were not costumes for tourists; they were what farmers wore to load their trucks Wednesday mornings and come to their booths at the Curb Market.
I suppose I dimly realized that not every town in the United States had a curb market. I knew that the larger city of Asheville had the regional farmers’ market and that the vegetables on my grandmother’s table in smaller Brevard came from my uncle’s own garden. But I was unprepared for the reactions of my father’s family. Visiting from the Midwest, they found my normal Curb Market quaint and foreign — and puzzling. “Why is it a ‘curb market’ if it isn’t outside at the curb?” It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized Hendersonville’s Curb Market was a destination: simultaneously a throwback to a little remembered agricultural movement from the turn of the 20th century and a thoroughly contemporary way of celebrating town and county identity in western North Carolina.
Tucked into the first floor of a former bank building on Main Street today is Henderson County’s Historical Society. There, documented in newspaper clippings and audible in conversation with the volunteers on staff, is the town’s history as a market center. Its traditions of boarding houses, general stores, and commerce stand in contrast to other communities in the area: Hendersonville has always been more mercantile than resort communities like nearby Flat Rock, less urbane than architects’ playgrounds like Asheville.
At the fiftieth anniversary of the Market in the 1970s, Henderson County’s preeminent memory-keeper, dairyman, former football coach, and banker Frank L. FitzSimons narrated the civic history of the Market. The author of three volumes of From the Banks of the Oklawaha, FitzSimons recalled writing a letter to the newspaper that argued the county needed a market like the European ones he had observed during World War I. The editor of the newspaper, Noah Hollowell, joined with FitzSimons. Working with “Mr. Arnold, the country farm agent and the home demonstration agent, whose name I have forgotten,” the city men persuaded seven farm families to create the first market (FitzSimons uses this curious phrasing that will prove important in the Heritage of Henderson County). As they formally organized, the local newspaper reported on 20 May 1925 that the Curb Market’s “governing board will consist of at least three representatives from the farmers. They will ask for one from the Merchants Association, one from the Chamber of Commerce, one from the city commissioners and one from the Woman’s Club to help make regulations for conducting the market in a way that it will prove attractive to the producers as well as the buyers and objectionable to no one.” First held in 1924 and 1925 on Main Street under donated buggy umbrellas, the Market eliminated the need for the farmers to travel the streets of the town peddling at individuals’ doors. Instead, city buyers came to the sellers.
Newspaper articles from the early days debated whether the Market would eliminate or promote peddling. By the 1930s, elimination has triumphed: an advertisement announces “The Curb Market has in a large way solved the problem of peddling from house to house by farmers.” Businesses soon donated materials for a more permanent location (farmers provided the labor). The Curb Market moved to a wooden building on King Street and, later, to the even more prominent location, its current concrete building on Church Street. Along the way, the Curb Market controlled its size – and raised its status. As a 28 June 1978 article in the Times-News argued, “For most of its life, membership in the Market has been restricted by space considerations and it might be said that a ‘seat’ on the Curb approaches the value and prestige of a ‘seat’ on the nation’s major stock exchanges, with some of the originals currently followed by their grandchildren.” Indeed, families pass membership in the Curb Market from generation to generation; participation is strictly limited and highly coveted. As early as the mid-1930s, the Market had expanded to the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday schedule it keeps today.
A second way to tell the story of the Curb Market hides in plain sight in FitzSimons’ account. The same advertisement that proclaimed the death of peddling in the county hints at the market’s other history, saying, “The market had its beginning 12 years ago when a number of farmers, mostly farm women, through the co-operation of the county farm agent and home agent, united their efforts to make a better retail outlet for produce.” It is the story of the home demonstration agent whose name FitzSimons has forgotten, the “mostly farm women” who united to make a retail outlet, and the representatives from the Woman’s Club who served on the original board—and it is the story of the women who have been behind the scenes of the Market, managing its daily operations for the eighty-five years of its existence.
Both stories hold kernels of truth. Given the social and culture mores of the 1920s, the Curb Market needed the newspaperman and the city council member. It needed the commitment and the labor of male farmers to park their buggies and cars and let the city buyers come to them rather than peddle to each door. Still, most of the buyers (who made purchases and ran the kitchens of boarding houses and homes in town) and most of the sellers (who did the daily work of staffing the curb market tables every time it convened) were women. The Curb Market could not exist without them.
In the 1920s in the rest of North Carolina, a coalition of farmwomen and the new home demonstration agents were founding farmers’ markets everywhere. Headquartered at North Carolina State University, the women’s branch of extension was run by Jane McKimmon (whose name is remembered today on state buildings and conference centers). When she wrote her memoir in 1945 of how 4-H and extension work evolved from its beginnings in girls canning clubs to its eventual statewide network of women and girls, she titled it When We’re Green We Grow. McKimmon’s story is one of community—her autobiography is not “I” but “we” throughout. You hear that emphasis when she talks about the curb market movement her extension women started in the state. McKimmon focuses on the social aspects of the movement: how 4-H girls like Callie Walker, long-time curb market seller who began with her 4-H cakes, needed a place to sell their wares; how city and farm women could learn from each other if given the chance; how money went back to families when earned in the community. McKimmon describes the interaction country women and city women had on market day: “friendly chats while sales are being made give both buyer and seller a clearer understanding of each other’s worth.” She names the Henderson County market as one of their successes (using data gathered by the home demonstration agents whose names FitzSimons and the rest of us have forgotten). McKimmon documents more than $570,000 in profit made by state markets in 1945; the Henderson County Market was in the second highest tier of profitable markets, the only one from the North Carolina mountains to achieve such size.
Men helped found the Market and have served on the board and participated in its history, but women have always done the behind-the-scenes, daily work of sustaining it. The Market’s only paid position has traditionally been the manager; women have always staffed this position, most of them staying in the post for decades. Twenty years ago, Dale McGeehon of the Times-News suggested that reason the Curb Market involved so many women is that “many of the farmers have died…Their wives usually cannot continue the farming business but they can sew and make rugs or other items to continue selling at the market.” This ability to evolve and make strengths out of challenges explains why Henderson County’s Curb Market, which began as one of many throughout the state, remains today, precious to visitors and residents alike.Keeping a business running for eighty-five years clearly takes brains and skills, but the story of its women is not often publicly celebrated at the Market. Other Henderson County residents are similarly obscured by the Market’s public face. North Carolina in the 1920s was a segregated state, with distinct institutions for white and black residents; the Curb Market’s founding and early patronage fell solidly on the white side of the color line. Despite its vibrant African American community and the Latino population (formerly migrant field workers but permanent residents today), the Curb Market has not always reflected the county’s diversity in its sellers.
Because it is diverse, Henderson County counters many stereotypes of the Appalachian region. If the Curb Market is consciously nostalgic and “old timey” today, in a manner more in accord with tourist expectations than with its own history (if it perpetuates a kitschy, old-fashioned image, rather than asserting that Hendersonville recognizes its strong, organized, and business-savvy women or the diversity of its residents through time), then it becomes a place only for visitors. But since it began the Henderson County Curb Market has bound city and county, men and women, farm and town, newly arrived and long time residents together. Those connections sound pretty helpful for the present as well. How can all of us—locals, tourists, and supporters—help the Curb Market bring that hidden past into the future?
A native of Hendersonville, North Carolina, Elizabeth Engelhardt is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. She has just co-authored Republic of Barbecue (2009), published by the University of Texas Press. A version of this essay first appeared in the Foodways issue of Now and Then: An Appalachian Magazine (Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2009).