York Town Square

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Market House No. 4 – Central Market, York’s most popular

Several years ago, I wrote a short history of York’s Central Market for its Web site.
The most surprising fact I learned was that more than 20,000 people a week shopped at the downtown market at peak points in its heyday.
And Central Market’s story includes a strange middle-of-the-night incident …

… that helped solidify what would eventually be five large indoor market houses in the York area:
Here’s the story:
It was 2 a.m. in the newly minted city of York on a June morning in 1887. About 20 men with seven mules and three horses gathered in York’s Centre Square. Men and animals, a York County historian says, were there to do early morning demolition work on two long-standing outdoor market sheds, not known for either their beauty or the sweet odors they exhaled from their dingy recesses. There would be no legal opposition to the demolition. Courts were not in session at 2 a.m. The deed was done, and by noon little was left of the flea-bitten sheds.
The once-congested commercial center of York was now available for trolleys to rumble through, filled with passengers going to work and play. York County’s growing industries now could move their products north and south and east and west without delay. But with the market sheds pulled down, farmers still needed a location in York’s center city to sell their goods. And York’s growing population needed to eat. York was bursting and bustling. Its population quadrupled between 1880 and 1930.
In these years, Americans increasingly were drawn to large, covered market houses, in much the way that malls became popular 100 years later. York County joined in the market building craze. York’s City Market operated several blocks off of Centre Square, and Farmers Market handled customers west of the Codorus Creek. The Eastern Market was just starting to serve the part of York from which it drew its name.
The demise of the market sheds apparently led some to conclude that the central city needed a central covered market, too. Some investors purchased property just off the square at Beaver and Philadelphia streets on March 30, 1888, and contracted with well-known York Architect J.A. Dempwolf to design a markethouse.
Dempwolf came back with an unusual L-shaped, neo-Romanesque style design with five towers. Construction proceeded at a rapid pace, and the market opened for public inspection on December 11, 1888. Vendors began standing in market, as it’s called, the next day. “The new Centre Market building, one of the most complete and magnificent market structures in the state of Pennsylvania, was thrown open for the inspection of the public last night,” The Age, a newspaper, reported. “It was heated by stoves and illuminated by electric light and presented a brilliant and imposing appearance. Hundreds of people visited and admired the new market, and promenaded through the place during the evening.”
From that Saturday in December 1888 to today, people have been going to market at the Central Market House. At times, 20,000 people have passed through its three arched entrances in a week. The market has operated despite economic depressions, the birth of supermarkets and declining York County agricultural acreage.
Part of the market’s success is the sense of community coming from its diverse social interactions — customer to customer, stand holder to stand holder, and stand holder to customer. Generations of families have gone to market, buying and socializing with the generations of families that have been standing in market. Someone once wrote that the close-knit nature of the market community can be illustrated by the stand-holding families. The Keeney, Markey, Fitz, and Myers families were among the market leaders in the 20th century. The families tended to live near each other. Sometimes, they could point to relations on both sides. And, at some reunions, all these names were on the list.
The practice of shoppers purchasing directly from producers is rebounding in America today, going full circle back to market life in the 18th and 19th centuries. And in the center of it all, a covered market — York’s Central Market.
A sampling of other York market posts:
York County farm vs. factory tension relieved in overnight raid .
Going to market a longtime York County pastime.
York’s Central Market sells steak … and sizzle.
The forgotten fifth York market house.
York Market House No. 1 – Penn Street Farmers Market.
York Market House No. 2 – The architecturally striking City Market.
York Market House No. 3 – The first Eastern Market.
Market House No. 4 – Central Market, York’s most popular.
York Market House No. 5 – Carlisle Avenue Market, revisited.