Yuppie-free & horsedrawn: The original Seattle farmers market

Roots of Tomorrow: Before the Beacon Food Forest and rooftop gardens, Seattle had a more original urban food revival.
Roots of Tomorrow: Before the Beacon Food Forest and rooftop gardens, Seattle had a more original urban food revival.

This article is a part of "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a weekly series on northwest urbanism. Start from the beginning with Parts 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance", Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes," and Part 3, "The car that broke the back of Seattle's bike craze" here.

Seattle has been getting reacquainted with urban farming. The local food movement has ripened, helping the city gain an international reputation as a foodie town full of ravenous locavores. The Pike Place Market, preserved from the wrecking ball in the ‘70s, is a major tourist attraction and supplier of food to visitors, restaurants and downtown residents. It’s an icon of the way Seattle’s regional food and urban identity have become inextricably linked. Food is our heritage, and heritage — especially this heritage — is civic sustenance. 

Demand for fresh, local produce has driven a proliferation of new farmer’s markets throughout the city. Year-round, parking lots and playgrounds are turned into hunting grounds for fresh produce and craft foodstuffs — from ginger beer and hard ciders to honey and hams. Neighborhood parking strips have been replaced with corn crops, rooftops sprout green gardens and the folks next door just might be raising chickens. Organizations like Seattle Tilth have, since the mid-1970s, pioneered a resurgent interest in local, organic and urban food sources. There are scores of neighborhood plots and urban farms throughout the city, including a new “food forest” on Beacon Hill that has gained national attention.

Cultivated foods were always critical, to the Native Americans who harvested acorns and camas roots from native oak prairies, and to the first settlers, who cut old growth timber and turned their “stump farms” into real farms on fertile lands in the temperate Puget Sound climate. The soils of the local river valleys produced generously. In his history of Seattle, Clarence Bagley tells us that Duwamish farmer L. M. Collins raised crops worth $5,000 in 1853. “He raised turnips weighing from twenty-three to thirty-five pounds each, potatoes weighing as much as four pounds each, and onions two pounds each.”

And, when the budding village of Seattle was trying to attract Rev. David Blaine and his wife Catherine to settle on Elliott Bay that same year, founder Arthur Denny offered the reverend “a lot for a first fair garden” as an enticement. No report on the size of their turnips, but Catherine did establish Seattle’s first apple orchard – fitting for the city’s first school teacher.

As Seattle grew and Puget Sound’s transportation systems (roads, boats, ferries and rail) spread, the growing city’s food supply was largely outsourced to the urban margins and surrounding countryside. Still, the city itself did keep its hand in. In the early 20th century, Seattle owned and operated a 53-acre farm in the rich Kent Valley under the supervision of the city’s Streets and Sewers Department. Crops and wheat were grown and distributed to and through various municipal entities.

Crosscut archive image.

City Farm Hay harvest, 1921. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

Crosscut archive image.There was abundance to share. In 1917, the farm’s bounty went to feed people at the city hospital, the city jail and the city-run Firland tuberculosis sanatorium. According to an inventory listed in the newspaper, this bounty included 2,500 pounds of peas, 16,420 pounds of tomatoes, 800 bunches of radishes, 1,650 heads of lettuce, 1,050 bunches of green onions, 1,150 pounds of wax beans, plus 80 sacks of sweet corn, 7,500 pounds of cucumbers, 75 tons of potatoes, 50 tons of cabbage, 12 tons of rutabagas, 30 tons of carrots, 15 tons of parsnips, 2 tons of dry onions and over a ton of wheat. The crops were raised with help from the inmates of the city jail.

At right: City Farm Produce, 1917. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives.

If relatively little food was grown within Seattle city limits as time went on, the population was still a major consumer. The city’s creation of the Pike Place Market in 1907 was a huge step toward ensuring that urban dwellers had access to fresh, local foods at affordable prices. It was a success from day one, attracting customers who arrived to buy goods from the back of farmers’ wagons.

Crosscut archive image.

Local farmers at the Pike Place Market stalls, 1936. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives.


The first customer, according to a contemporary account, was an African American woman who spent 15 cents with farmer H.O. Blankenship of Renton Junction. As Bagley noted in his city history, “The public market has been of inestimable value to the public and especially the wage earner. Here the producer and consumer meet without any middleman’s profit. It materially serves to reduce the cost of living….” Good urban agricultural practices resulted in better food and brisk business, and helped to make the city more affordable.

There were private downtown markets following the Pike Place model as well. The Westlake Public Market, founded at 5th and Westlake in 1909, featured competitive prices and a vast array of stalls, which they offered to local farmers for free.

Crosscut archive image.

Westlake Public Market, private competitor to Pike Place, 1924. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives.

The Pike Place managers considered it a threat. “This is survival of the fittest,” they warned Pike Place vendors as the Westlake Market opened.

The Post Office Market, which opened in 1926 in the Mann Building at the corner of 3rd and Union, also featured market-style stalls of local farm products. The goal of the Mann Building itself was to spur more development in the neighborhood, and the market was seen as a key part of that goal.

When it debuted, local realtor Frank C. Jackson enthused: “Union Street is destined to see a greater development in the next five years than has been true on any other street in Seattle in any five-year period of Seattle’s history.” He predicted that “the convenience to street car travel is certain to make the Post Office Public Market a busy marketing center.”

Jackson was right: Access to local food would fuel downtown growth. The Pike Place Market had been founded not just to boost local farmers, but to feed the growing population and Thomas Revelle, a Seattle City Council member who had been instrumental in the market's creation, predicted as much in 1907. The market, he said, would cause immense tracts of land to be cultivated and "manufacturing industries will come as a result."

By 1926, that was proven. The value of adjacent real estate rose almost immediately and the market itself quickly expanded from a single street lined with farmers' wagons into an entire neighborhood of new markets, shops and housing. And, as early as 1913, grand development schemes — which would pop up multiple times over the decades — were already being floated.

They envisioned the market at the center of a burgeoning new high-rise city, with food as the focal point.

This project is made possible with the generous support of 4Culture/ King County Lodging Tax Fund.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.