History of the Edmonton Downtown Farmers Market
The story behind what has become one of the major attractions to the area.
Edmonton is surrounded by market gardens that thrive on the rich agricultural land in this region. As well, one of Alberta’s major industries continues to be agriculture, and the provincial government has at various times supported farmers markets through grants and other resources. Add to that the current public interest in farm-to-table food, and you have an environment that provides exceptional support for farmers markets.
“Alberta’s strength in markets, which it really has,” says Kathryn Merrett, “has something to do with the early years in Edmonton.” She is referring to the opening of the Rice Street Market in 1900 at Market Square (99 Street and 102 Avenue) and its continued activity there for almost 65 years, until the city chose that site for the Stanley A. Milner Library.
Merrett became a fan of the downtown market in 1967 when she first came to Edmonton from Winnipeg. One thing led to another, and by 2001 she had published a book entitled A History of the Edmonton City Market (University of Calgary Press).
This book documents the ups and downs of this special economic and cultural element of our city. The publisher’s description of Merrett’s book says that she “sheds light on the turbulent relationship between a city’s cultural and agricultural values and the civic aspirations of the city’s officials.”
The “ups and downs” created by the outside world have included two world wars, the 1918 Spanish flu, and the Great Depression – and now, COVID-19. Within the city, there have been many booms and busts in Edmonton’s economic health, as well as major changes to the downtown core. A place that began as a small outpost in the Western Canadian frontier has quickly grown to a population of one million people and what current Edmontonians like to describe as a metropolitan atmosphere.
All through those 120 years, vendors have arrived at the downtown market almost every weekend – at least in the summer. They come to sell their produce, meat and fish, cooked dishes, artistic creations, crafts, and more. Through the generations, visitors have come to shop, visit, be entertained, and just enjoy the special atmosphere that a market provides.
In 1916 the original Market Square acquired an all-weather structure to house the market, and in 1933 an annex was added. But in the 1950s and ‘60s the market experienced a significant decline. Edmonton’s central and downtown development now focused on progress and modernization. So in 1965 the market was moved to a building on 97 Street and 102 Avenue to make way for construction of the new library.
In the summer of 2004 the market moved outdoors to 104 Street, with the closure of two city blocks on spring and summer weekends. In the fall of 2011 the market began operating year-round, moving inside City Hall in the winter.
In 2019 the downtown market made another move to its current address in the historic GWG building on 97 Street and 103 Avenue, very near to the spot where it had operated previously for almost 40 years. This location offers free parking, an attractive interior and indoor shopping year-round.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Merrett says. “I am really looking forward to buying the fresh peas and new potatoes when they arrive.”
Anita Jenkins is a retired writer and editor who lives in Boyle Street.