Hard to believe — there was a time when Helena’s Farmers Market was treated like an unwelcome orphan found one morning on Helena’s front step.
Now it’s vibrant and vital and celebrating its 40th birthday, June 15.
In its early years, the market could have been on roller skates — always on the move in search of a home — Triangle Park, Lewis & Clark Library site, the Walking Mall, the Wells Fargo Bank parking lot, the Hustad Center, Memorial Park, the Kmart parking lot.
Some Helenans were skeptical of a market. Others thought it would be bad for business.
Now, Helena embraces it with open arms — every Saturday morning — 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. — on Fuller Avenue downtown.
Crowds of about 1,500 show up in spring. By the heart of the summer, about 8,000 stroll through to shop, chat and nosh.
Some folks arrive in their jammies and slippers, said Wayne O’Brien, president of the market board. Others have come in costumes. Many arrive half awake and clutching a coffee mug.
“It’s the essence of the best Helena has to offer,” said O’Brien, who’s been at the market 22 years. “Fuller is sandwiched between two parks. There’s the sounds of music and smells of food wafting down the street and people are just enjoying the relationships they’ve developed with these sellers. It’s the essence of what people want in community. It has a local authenticity — it’s unique in that sense.
“It’s the Cheers Bar — outside ... a bar scene without the alcohol. It’s got this innocent open wonderment. It brings everyone together — young and old and kids.”
And let’s not forget the dogs. It’s the doggie heaven social hour of the week.
From muffins and mushrooms, to brats and burgers, tomato and thyme, petunias and pansies, lettuce and lemonade, lavender soap and leather wallets, life-size metal horses and wooden bird houses, henna tattoos and hemp jewelry, T-shirts to tacos — there’s something for every taste.
In its early days, there was just a handful of sellers, recalled Susan Miles, one of the market’s founding board members as she sat with a scrapbook of news clips and posters on a recent afternoon.
“Produce was gone in 20 minutes,” she said. “Supply couldn’t meet our demand. We struggled to have eight growers.”
One of the earliest vendors was Terry Johnson, who started selling produce there in 1976. “When I got involved, the number of vendors was extremely small — a half dozen to a dozen at most.”
He recalls there was so little produce that if someone stood in line waiting for the market bell to ring to kick off selling, they could leave with empty bags — all the produce could be sold in one fell swoop to the first customer.
“I remember selling carrots, bunches of beets, a few potatoes and summer squash,” he said. “I was selling large bunches of carrots for 25 cents.”
In the early days, a few vendors had tables, but many folks sold produce out of the trunks of their cars or the backs of their pickup.
“The biggest thing that’s happened over the years is the size the market has grown,” Johnson said, “and the variety for consumers has really grown. Last Saturday, there was 105 vendors and that’s in May.”
The market now stretches two full blocks in the downtown, drawing about 350 Montana vendors rotating through the season. Of these, 167 have reserved space for the whole season, while about 200 sellers are day sellers who just show up.
A total of 183 spaces are available. “Against all odds, we may fill all the spaces and likely will this year,” predicts O’Brien.
Helena now has the longest running market season in the state, opening the last Saturday of April and running through the last Saturday in October.
Then it moves indoors at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds for an extended season until the Saturday before Christmas.
Items sold must be Montana grown, Montana made or Montana value added.
“The variety has really changed,” said Johnson. “Craft folks add a real different flavor to the market,” which he welcomes.
But he’d also like to see more vegetable and fruit vendors coming in, as well. The Helena market has welcomed growers from Missoula, who arrive early in the season with produce and grow it late into the fall.
Two Hutterite colonies — Milford and Elk Creek — are also selling produce, baked goods, plants and poultry.
Added popular features are Nonprofit Day, the third Saturday of each month, where nonprofits set up tables in Women’s Park. The market also provides an easy-to-use token exchange program for those on food assistance programs or wanting to use a credit card.
From July 24 to Sept. 25, there’s an additional evening market from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in the East Helena City Hall parking lot.
“The momentum of the market carries itself,” said O’Brien, owner of Montana Marketing. “There’s a huge movement happening across the country to buy local. This is the easiest thing I ever marketed.”
In fact, the market is so popular, he said, it wouldn’t have to advertise.
People would just show up and spread the good news by word of mouth.
O’Brien also sees the market as a very successful business incubator.
“Farmers market is a terrific way for a seller to see if it makes sense to launch a business,” he said. It has a long history of keeping its rates low ($20 per Saturday for day sellers or $250 per season for reserved space) to attract vendors.
For the first market in 1974, “we chose Triangle Park,” recalled Miles, “across from the old Shodair and across from the old ice cream shop.”
The ice cream parlor was a natural draw, and the park had a playground to keep kids occupied, she said. From the get-go, the market was always kid friendly.
“We always thought about children coming with parents,” said Miles, “so the location had to be safe for children.”
But it wasn’t long before they had to pack up and search for a new home — the next site, from 1975 to 1976, was where the current Lewis & Clark Library was under construction.
Once again, the board thought it would draw people because everyone was curious about the library’s progress.
From 1977 to 1981, the market moved to the Walking Mall next to the Livestock Building. From 1982 to ’85, they were in the Northwest Bank (now Wells Fargo) parking lot. By 1986, it was on to
the Hustad Center parking lot. And then in 1987, it moved to Memorial Park, until a park user fee of $100 per market in 1994 drove them out of the park and into the Kmart parking lot.
The market bounced back to Memorial Park from 1995 to 1999 until a road-widening project forced it to move to Fuller Avenue in 2000.
“We’re grateful to be on Fuller,” said Miles. And she’s thrilled to see the market now stretching down two city blocks.
“Farmers markets were happening around the state,” recalled Miles of 1973, when they first began meeting to plan one in Helena. “A group of us had started a buyers’ club and wanted a co-op. We wanted affordable food.
“I came from Pennsylvania where farmers markets were a real tradition,” she said.
“There was a lot of emphasis on Food First in the gas crisis back in 1973,” said Bob Adams, who was an attorney at that time and filed the group’s nonprofit incorporation papers. Although he wasn’t active in the markets himself because he was working in Glacier National Park in the summers, he was a supporter.
“I’m sure it just seemed like a good populist power-to-the-people idea,” he said. “It would be healthy, fun and community-spirited and sell absolutely fresh food.”
As markets launched around the state in Missoula, Bozeman and Great Falls, the Helena group invited in those organizers to share their expertise.
“It was a small core of really committed gardeners,” recalled Mark Meloy, who was the first paid market master.
He remembers the markets as being “a real frenetic scene for a short time.
“More than a huge profit motive, it was people wanting to share produce with the community,” Meloy said of the vendors. “It was a small, friendly group of gardeners. There was a real spirit of camaraderie.”
To spark interest in the market, supporters held events — a parade with kids dressed up as veggies and a garden critter contest, where kids created such creatures as a carrot octopus, a turnip clown and a cucumber car.
A 1974 IR article describing what was then the Wednesday night Farmers Market reported that local gardeners were becoming first-time entrepreneurs — tilling a little extra space in their backyard gardens to bring produce to sell. A photo shows one youthful customer walking away from the market with a giant zucchini slung over his shoulder.
“The success of the market is marked by all of the smiling people,” the article states, “some leaving the park with armloads of corn and potatoes, others just standing around enjoying the ‘jawing’ and the cool evening air. One comes away from the market with the feeling that, like the vegetables there, life has finally been taken out of its cellophane wrapper.”
Miles, an avid gardener, has always valued the friendly exchanges that takes place between buyers and sellers. When people talk to growers, she said, they “understand what it takes to grow a good cauliflower.
“It’s just a wonderful way to get to know your community. It brings people together. It brought people downtown, where they could talk neighbor to neighbor. It got people to know their grower and where food comes from.”
“We knew we’d arrived,” she said, “ when we made it into the tourist listings.”
As to the June 15 party plans, they’re still underway, said O’Brien. Musicians and vendors are welcome to join the fun. For more information, visit the Helena Farmers Market website at www.helenafarmersmarket.com or call O’Brien at 449-7446.