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Kicking It at the Curb

Kicking It at the Curb

For 150 years, Greensboro’s farmers market has cultivated community

By Ross Howell Jr. 

Photographs by Lynn Donovan

The best description of what the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market feels like was written back in 1994 by Dorothy Mason — now retired professor emerita of geography at N.C. A&T State University. She was a loyal market customer then and still is today.

“On any Saturday morning in July, the old National Guard Armory building is the busiest place in the city,” Mason writes.

“Before 6 a.m., shoppers have gathered outside the entrances, while vendors unload their trucks and carry in boxes of green beans, tomatoes, corn, cut flowers and potted plants, baked goods, jams and soap,” she continues.

“By 7 a.m., the scene can best be described as ‘a rump-bumping crowd.’ There is a festival atmosphere as shoppers select produce and vendors weigh it, talking together like old friends. Shoppers block the aisles, their bodies enlarged by bags and flower containers, as they stop to chat with friends.”

But, she notes, the market is about more than just the fresh veggies and homemade cakes. Mason adds. “It is a social event which brings people of a range of socioeconomic backgrounds together.”

Prof. Mason’s description was written for a study she presented at an annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers. Her interests were the market community, the human relationships it nurtures and the ways the market helps preserve regional cooking traditions.

Ever the academic, Mason brought the receipts to support her observations. She had administered questionnaires to 384 shoppers and conducted interviews with the market manager and many vendors and shoppers. She found that 74 percent of those polled had shopped the market for five years or more and 32 percent for 20 years or more. She discovered that more than 20 of her subjects had been coming to the market for 40 years, and three had been coming for an astounding 50 years.

In interviews, Mason had subjects who recalled being brought to the market as children, and one who identified herself as a fourth-generation shopper.

Mason also asked people open-ended questions about why they came to the market. Respondents commented on the freshness and quality of produce, supporting local farmers, nostalgia for a simpler time and — interestingly — the crowd.

“Crowd! This is the greatest reason,” wrote one respondent.

I like to peek into the nooks and crannies of history. And history helps us understand that the farmers curb market is much more like a tree than a building, more like a marriage than a location. It’s a living community within our city, benefiting us all.

To give you an idea of how long ago the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market was founded — when it first opened in 1874, our O. Henry magazine namesake, William Sydney Porter, was still enrolled in his aunt Evelina Henry Porter’s elementary school.

The most comprehensive account of the origins of the market is found — strangely enough — in a two-segment radio address delivered in 1951 by the Honorable Robert Haines Frazier, mayor, to WCOG listeners.

Mayor Frazier’s Greensboro roots ran deep. His father, Cyrus Pickett Frazier, had been a professor and long-time trustee at Guilford College, a superintendent of Greensboro city schools, and a successful real estate entrepreneur.

Mayor Frazier was born in Greensboro, raised in a Quaker household and became a Greensboro attorney. When he was elected to office, he succeeded textile industrialist and philanthropist Benjamin Cone, an individual well-known for his commitment to the local community.

The mayor notes that on May 13, 1874, a committee was appointed to look into establishing a market. Subsequently, the city purchased a lot and constructed a building accommodating 20 vendor stalls on the east side of the business district.

Frazier adds in painstaking detail how the stalls were rented at auction, the financial terms of stall rental, the requirements for stall cleanliness and maintenance, the market official who decided where vendors would hitch their horses and wagons, and the city ordinance written to prohibit random street vending of the “fresh meats, fresh fish, butter, eggs, poultry, vegetables, melons and fruits” to be sold during the hours the market was open.

In 1875, a special market house for fish mongers was added. A review of revenues revealed that the costs to create the market had been a good investment for the city. But the market’s success was blemished by its very popularity.

According to the mayor, “loungers” and “gossip” were problems.

“So great did the nuisance become that many of our ladies refused to go there,” Mayor Frazier told his radio audience. But the market clerk was given police powers and the city passed an ordinance “against idleness and loafing,” granting the mayor’s office with the power of enforcement. The problems soon diminished.

Then, misfortune struck on the morning of May 27, 1888, when the market house and all records, maps and furniture were destroyed by fire.

A year later, the decision was made to rebuild, using the walls that had survived the fire, and plans were made to put water in the market house and a drinking fountain in the public square.

By December 1901, the board of aldermen detailed new rules and regulations for the market, which operated until 1906 and then closed, evidently due to management problems.

When the farmers market reopened in 1922, it was in the open air on Commerce Place. Vendors parked their trucks or wagons on the curb selling items from the tailgates or running boards of their vehicles.

The location changed a couple of times in subsequent years, but, according to Mayor Frazier, the market returned to its Commerce Place location in the 1930s.

And, as happened after its original opening in 1874, the market’s success created problems. Business grew and spread into an alley extending all the way from Commerce Place to Eugene Street. With no central market building, the growing congestion and confusion were unmanageable.

Remarkably, in some of the most challenging days of World War II, the Greensboro Council of Garden Clubs “expressed the need for an adequately housed farm produce market,” the mayor tells us.

At a city council meeting in February 1943, a group of citizens presented a petition signed by 12,000 individuals “asking for the establishment of the market in the old Tobacco Market Warehouse on Commerce Place.” A commission was charged with studying the issue, and in January 1944, the city authorized “$65,000 in Market House bonds” to raise funds for “remodeling and equipping” a building.

On its opening day, June 24, 1944 — just days after the D-Day invasion — the new farmers curb market saw a crowd of 2,000, possibly the largest to gather at a single market up until that point. Greensboro’s mayor at the time “dedicated the market to the community as an influence for closer urban-rural relationship and greater production and consumption of native products.”

A look at the newspaper clippings on file in the Greensboro History Museum reveals even more about the synergy between the market community and the city community.

An article from the Greensboro Record, Feb. 7, 1962, carries the headline, “City Takes Over Armory Monday for Market Use.” In 1963, the curb market was moved from its Commerce Place location to its current one — the old National Guard Armory building on Yanceyville Street.

In the history museum’s files I also came across an October 1995 article in a newspaper section designated, “Irving Park Magazine.” The piece was written by Betty Taylor, who gives an overview of the history of the market and includes a photograph of “Margaret Rumley and Shirley Rumley Broom.”

Many curb market customers — myself included — remember the late Margaret Rumley simply as “Mom.” She sat on a kitchen stool at her stall greeting generations of flower buyers alongside her daughter, Shirley, who was first photographed by a newspaperman at the market selling a pie to a customer when she was 9 years old.

With all that history and the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market’s 2024 sesquicentennial celebration in mind, I set out on a cold Saturday morning in February for Yanceyville Street.

Theresa Mattiello, the new market manager, was just months into her new position when the market sesquicentennial launched. She’s not new to the market, though. For four years she worked a stall with Tea Hugger, selling a variety of hand-blended teas. Trained in graphic design, Mattiello also did social media work for the previous farmers market manager.

Mattiello lives in Glenwood and practices micro farming, growing plants in raised beds and utilizing vertical space to increase production. She’s representative of a new generation of urban gardeners who encourage others to think of their grass lawns as potential “yardens,” where fresh food can be grown within more traditional landscaping.

Standing alongside Mattiello in the “Info Hub” stall are two market employees. Shane Henderson is a student at N.C. A&T State, majoring in civil engineering and public health, and Abigail Miller-Warren is taking classes in sustainability at GTCC.

All three are young and enthusiastic — and their smiles are infectious. They’re handing out flyers announcing sesquicentennial events. This month, look for the annual plant sale and an Earth Day Fair.

Special events will continue monthly throughout 2024.

“It’s very exciting,” Mattiello tells me. “We managed to stay open during COVID with our mobile market, kind of a drive-through — but we did lose some vendors.”

Mattiello networks with current vendors, customers and the greater community to recruit new vendors.

“We’re always reaching out to farmers younger than 40 and farmers who grow more exotic vegetables to broaden the selection of produce available,” Mattiello says.

After accepting a flyer from Miller-Warren, I decide to browse.

First, I meet Garland McCollum, who’s at a stall right by the market entrance. His big hands are wrapped around a pair of long-handled pruning shears that he’s sharpening.

McCollum is there with Massey Creeks Farm, an operation specializing in sustainably-grown, grass-fed meats and eggs. He tells me the Rockingham County farm has been in his family since 1749.

“All I ever wanted to do was farm,” McCollum says.

After graduating from N.C. State with a degree in animal husbandry, he returned to the farm, where tobacco was still the main crop. But he wanted to raise livestock. Over time, he moved into growing hogs under contract and eventually discovered the possibility of selling his pork and lamb direct to consumers at the farmers market.

“I started sharpening implements here to pass the time when business was slow,” McCollum says. “Then I found out people really needed the service.”

Next I move to the Chéngers stall, occupied by Jo Ann and Bob Smith, whose daughter, Trina Pratt, owns the business and is also an adjunct professor in kinesiology at N.C. A&T State.

Jo Ann tells me that Prof. Pratt’s business name honors her son, Ché, who was born when she was still in graduate school.

“When he was a baby, he would not eat baby food,” Jo Ann says. “So Trina started making applesauce for him at home.”

“Are these soups?” a customer asks.

“Yes,” Bob answers. “Asian vegetable, butternut squash, chickpeas and tomato bisque. Vegan, all-natural, no preservatives, no additives.”

The customer ponders a selection, and Jo Ann processes the purchase.

She tells me many customers are older.

“Our bodies go through changes,” Jo Ann says. “That’s the other idea behind the name of the business. Regardless of age or health, people can eat my daughter’s food.”

A chef now helps develop recipes and the business sells soups, smoothies, juices and baby foods.

Dr. Pratt’s foods must do the job. Her son, Ché, steps up to the stall, now a handsome young man a good 6 feet tall.

Near a corner of the market building I spy a stall with some beautiful cold-weather vegetables. Lukas Hoey of The Hoey Farm introduces himself. He’s a bearded, genial young man, a first-generation, urban farmer who began his career as a chef.

When health issues precluded him from continuing in the restaurant business, he started farming.

“My kids help, my wife helps; we’re a family farm, but I’m the one primarily doing it,” says Hoey, who’s been a vendor for two years. “I love it.”

He explains that he has a greenhouse located by the coliseum. After starting plants there, he moves them to High Point, where a friend has a half-acre of land that she allows him to farm.

In his stall, he points out Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, curly kale and collards.

“We also do some micro greens, which are very healthy, like a super food,” he says. “We focus on things that grow really fast, things that are quick to harvest. Things that are a little niche.”

The market has proven to be a good pivot for Hoey. “I see familiar faces, customers from my restaurant days, but this is a much healthier setting for me. I’ve never looked back.”

Next, at a crafts stall, I’m eyeing elegant, hand-painted stones and wooden pieces, brightened with precise beads of color, and then, I’m gazing upon a face familiar from years ago when I worked at Replacements, Ltd. — where she still has her day job.

Viktoriya Saltzman.

A native Ukrainian, Saltzman is the owner of Dew Drop Rocks. She grew up in the town of Mariupol, on the sea of Azov, now famous for its ferocious resistance to Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

After a hug, she asks, “You see those eggs?” She points to them.

“Those two eggs, the wooden part, they came from Mariupol,” Saltzman says.

“My mom sent me from Ukraine,” she continues. “I receive the package like a week before the war.”

Saltzman admired their shape and painted them. “But I’m not going to sell them ever because they’re just part of my home. I keep them for someday . . . ” and her voice trails off.

She shows me selections of her work — jewelry boxes, ornaments, painted stone whimsies. She tells me the baby girl I remember from pictures is now a 17-year-old.

Next I stop by a stall with a man selling local honey. Turns out, he’s something of a market legend.

Bill Mullins is a 93-year-old retiree from the insurance business and the owner of Quaker Acre Apiaries. He’s been coming to the farmers market as a vendor for 55 years.

“Seems like when I started coming, we were outside at Commerce Place,” he chuckles.

Mullins tells me he got interested in bees as a boy in Alabama.

“My father was a general insurance agent, and he had a good friend in the mountains of Kentucky,” Mullins says. “He’d take me with him when he’d go up there to visit. And the friend kept honeybees.” Mullins recalls watching the honeybees while the men talked.

“And that’s what got me interested in bees.”

I ask Mullins how he feels about the farmers curb market after 55 years selling his honey here?

He muses for a moment.

“I’ve been here so long, nearly everybody here is a friend of mine,” he adds. “It’s just a very friendly place.”

Finally, I decide to join a short queue of customers waiting to purchase fresh shrimp and fish from George Smith of Smith Century Farm & NC Fresh Seafood in Gibsonville. Since no one’s behind me, we have a moment to chat.

“What Bill Mullins was telling you about is what we vendors call competitive camaraderie,” Smith says.

He tells me the 250-acre farm has been in his family since the late 1700s.

“I’ve got pencil drawings from the 1800s and a picture of the old home place around 1850 with everyone standing in front of the old log house dressed in their Sunday best,” Smith says.

His grandparents started coming to the market 91 years ago.

“I started coming in 1973,” Smith says. “I was 13 years old and came to help my grandmother. I got the bug and I’ve pretty much been here ever since.”

Another customer appears and I let Smith tend to business.

So I’ll close with the same advice that Mayor Frazier gave his WCOG radio listeners back in 1951.

“Today the Greensboro Curb Market, which has been termed the ‘largest producers’ curb market in the State,’ is a popular place for both our country and city folk,” the mayor said. “You’d be surprised how many shoppers are on hand at 6 o’clock on Saturday mornings.”

Early is best for top selection. And where else can you go in Greensboro to become part of a unique community that’s been around for 150 years?  OH

For more information on the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, go to or search Facebook for the handle Greensboro Farmers Curb Market.