On This Day in History, April 20: ‘To Market, To Market…’

April 20, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Springtime sees the return of many outdoor markets in Brooklyn, such as the popular Brooklyn Flea coming back to Fort Greene on Saturdays. The season also sees an increase in the bounty at our local farmers markets. But, even so, they  are no match for the Wallabout Market, pictured above in 1920. It adjoined the Brooklyn Navy Yard on its northeastern side.

The market operated from 1884 until the outbreak of World War II, when the government re-acquired the site to be used as a dry dock.

The market attracted farmers from all over Long Island, who before had to cross the East River to Manhattan to sell their goods. There was for years a fuss over the need for a “first class public market”in Brooklyn. Brooklynites were baffled as to why these farmers should ride their wagons right through their city of half a million people and cross to Manhattan only to sell their wares back to Brooklynites. “How very absurd…to buy in New York the very produce that passed their doorways,” a member farmer of the Wallabout Market Association remarked in the 1880s.Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Navy Yard Archives via Fort Greene by Howard Pitsch

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In 1877, the federal government leased about 27 acres of land with waterfront access north of the shipyard to the city for the purposes of a public market. Ultimately, the city bought the land outright, in 1890 for $700,000.

“The wharfage facilities are excellent, the channel being sufficiently deep to allow large vessels to discharge their cargoes…. it will supply both the Eastern and Western districts,” the Eagle reported of the plan in 1877. The market “long dreamed of, long thought of and long talked of” could finally come to fruition.

Though its location had advantages, the site needed work. It was marshy land, long “used as a dumping ground for the city’s refuse and also as the haunting ground of the murderous highwayrobbing, throatcutting Wallabout Gang, who were a terror even to the police.”

But frame buildings were erected, and a sewage system installed, and roads leveled and cut through for a marketplace.

In 1895, the market’s wares were tallied in the Eagle as such: “Wallabout Market is a food market, pure and simple…What is called ‘produce’ is its staple. 100 of the stands deal only in that. Then there are about 50 butchers and 8 wholesale grocers and three provisions (hams, bacon, etc.) and several fish stands, and the rest are general, including seven restaurants.”

Not all the produce was grown on Long Island or even New York State. “The canal admits a vast deal that comes from up the Hudson and the sound, but it also admits much that comes all the way across the ocean. Potatoes by the shipload from Scotland and Ireland, peas and beans from France, cabbages from England, onions from Bermuda and Spain.”

Each wagon paid 25 cents for a day’s selling in 1895, and rent for a frame building would run you $8 to $20 a month.

The receipts from the market in 1887 were $23,904.32 and the expenditures in salaries, cleaning and repair were $6,028.26, leaving a net revenue of $17,876.06 for the city.

The Eagle was quite proud of the Wallabout Market, as it was of all things Brooklyn, and published many stories about it over the years, sending reporters in the wee hours (commerce was under way at 3 a.m.) to tell tale of the hustle and bustle surrounding peas and carrots.

The market was not without its controversies. The city’s market commission would sometimes abruptly double and triple the rents for stalls, and whether or not liquor should be sold at the market was always a hot topic.

— By Phoebe Neidl

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