In celebration of the West Side Market’s centennial, we are delighted to give you a sneak preview of the upcoming book Cleveland’s West Side Market: 100 Years and Still Cooking.
The following excerpt is reprinted by permission of The University of Akron Press. Accompanying the text are photos collected from several archival resources in town. Please see captions for detailed credit information.
Shopping For The Market: The Major Food Groups
As early as 1858, farmers were gathering to sell their produce on the parcel at Pearl (now W. 25th Street) and Lorain Avenue. When a wooden shelter went up 10 years later, the Pearl Street Market was in business.
Area farmers brought in their harvest and butchers brought in Texas beef, a popular seller. Porterhouse steaks sold for 12 cents a pound. Pork roasts were five cents a pound, beef a penny more, and fish was so plentiful that merchants were only getting a dime for two pounds.
City leaders were moving forward with the planning and development of the West Side Market and envisioned a place where Northeast Ohio farmers could sell what they grew, a “place for suburban trolley freight cars to bring in country produce and unload it within the building.” Tracks were never laid to the Market; instead many of the vendors relied on the steady resources of the region to buy the meats, poultry, produce and more to stock their stands and supply their customers.
In the early days, produce vendors bought fresh fruits and vegetables from the wholesale food district market and commission houses scattered along Broadway, Woodland and Central Avenues, from E. Sixth to E. Ninth Street. Local farmers would bring their seasonal harvest into the wholesaler market and rail delivered foods from all around the country.
The Gentilles, a family of produce vendors that got their start at the Pearl Street Market and conducted business at the West Side Market until 2000, experienced firsthand the changes in how vendors brought their products to their stands. Jack Gentille, the fourth generation to run the business, recalls how his family and other vendors got the fruits and vegetables that were sold both on the street and under the arcade.
“There were at least 40 commission houses in that area,” he says. “In the early days, many would specialize in a certain product: There was one for celery, another for avocados, maybe one would sell carrots.” That narrow specialization was also a reflection of the Market at the time: Market management limited produce vendors in the variety and scope of what they could sell.
Myrtle Chappell, the famous Horseradish Lady, was known for her singular pungent product; Charles Guinta dealt exclusively in garlic; and Gentille recalls that when the holidays rolled around only two outside vendors were permitted to sell chestnuts, pecans, walnuts and filberts.
“At one time, we had a small corner stand where we could only sell lemons,” says Gentille. “You really can’t make a lot of money selling lemons so I asked to sell Ohio sweet corn, Iowa Chief, when it was available. The two products went together: People ate sweet corn and drank lemonade in the summer.” In a time when a lot of people were trying to make a modest living peddling produce, this type of reasoning was insightful and fairminded.
“There was a wholesale market on 19th and Woodland and farmers would come in from all over the area with homegrown produce when it was in season,” says Gentille. “They would come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays around midnight. Vendors had to get there early, like 1am, to get the best and get the quantity because farmers could only fit so much in their trucks. My grandmother sold the oddball stuff like homegrown spinach, kohlrabi, parsley root, endive and escarole. If we weren’t there early, we lost out.” Produce vendors would haul their buys back to the Market in horse-drawn wagons or small pickup trucks.
The wholesale market and small commission houses were eventually replaced in the 1930s by a modernized terminal, which included four reinforced-concrete buildings, an auction building, and a Growers’ Market. Gentille said that area farmers continued to bring their seasonal crops there up until the 1960s when he noticed a turning point.
“A lot of farmers just stopped growing because it was hard work, there was no one to take over the farm and there definitely was not a lot of money in this business,” he says, so vendors started relying more on produce brought in by rail.
There were a few area farmers who still grew and sold directly at the Market. In the 1960s and ’70s, a farmer named Walter Shank was known for the apples and ciders he would bring from his Avon orchard and sell through the Calabrese family. But a farmer named Norman Dill, a second-generation produce vendor, appeared to be years ahead of the trend for locally grown, seasonal food. Between the 1950s and ’80s, Dill, a former greenhouse grower, organized a group of small family farmers throughout Northeast Ohio to supply produce for his stand. He would often travel a hundred miles to collect his inventory: apricots, cherries, peaches and apples from area orchards; tomatoes, lettuces, eggplant, onions, potatoes and corn from dirt farmers, as well as onion sets and vegetable plants for his customers who preferred to grow their own.
An 1985 article in Gourmet Magazine, “The American Scene: Cleveland’s Farmers Markets,” also credits Dill with responding to a connoisseur market, including a healthy demand for fresh herbs and growing specialty produce of the time, like Spaghetti squash, yellow cucumbers and winter melons for his Asian customers.
All the while the smaller commission houses continued to close, were torn down, and the wholesale food trade consolidated into one area, with six large commission houses existing today under one roof. Produce still arrives by rail, but deliveries by refrigerated freight trucks are more common today, and all the vendors who sell fresh produce year-round rely in some measure on the resources of the food terminal.
Inside the Market, butchers would get whole steer, half steer, whole hogs, goat and lamb to cut for their customers from the Cleveland Union Stockyard on W. 65th, a processing center that provided meats through the 1970s and, in terms of volume, rivaled the stockyards of Chicago. The Union Stockyard’s proximity to the Market ensured a constant flow of fresh meat for the vendors, who at the time were cutting and selling a lot of roasts, chops, ground meat and more, that would feed customers’ families, large families, in an era when animal protein was the focal point of every dinner and a Sunday supper always featured some kind of beef roast. When the stockyards closed in the late 1970s, the Market’s butchers were forced to seek out packinghouses to supply beef, pork, lamb and goat.
Domestic cheeses that filled the cases of the “butter, egg and cheese” vendors like Holger Penttila, the Simmelinks and Gordon Wendt came from Wisconsin and Ohio. Janet, Penttila’s daughter, recalls 100-pound blocks of Amish Swiss from Middlefield and 40-pound wheels of Cheddar, which needed to be reduced to a more manageable size with cutting wire, and imported cheeses that arrived from Holland, Switzerland, France, Italy and other foreign places. Local dairies like Hillside brought their milk, specially made cottage cheese and heavy cream to the Market.
“The heavy cream used to come in large stainless steel milk cans and when my dad worked for Simmelinks, it was his job to fill the bottles to sell at the stand,” she said. Maple syrup from local producers came that way, too. “It always worked out that there wasn’t enough milk or syrup in the bottom of the cans to completely fill one more bottle, but just enough for him to take home to my mother.”
“Sixty-eight pound slabs of butter were the norm,” she says, “and they all had a very high butterfat content. Everyone sold quality butter.” Laid on ice in giant tubs, it was cut to order and was used by many home bakers to achieve a flaky piecrust or as the secret ingredient in their special butter cookie recipe.
Eggs would arrive direct from local farms, already cleaned, but it was the vendor’s job to “candle” them, holding them to a special light to look for signs of age, blood spots or double yolks. Once farmers began to rely on distributors as an easier way to get their eggs to the Market, candling equipment was no longer necessary at most dairy stands.
The scent of freshly baked breads, pastry, cookies, cakes and pie filled the Market, especially in the early hours of the day. Throughout the history of the Market, these aromas accompanied the deliveries of breads and baked goods prepared at offsite bakeries. Inside the building, on the main floor or in the basement, no baker ever had an oven or a workroom to produce the quantities needed to satisfy the many customers. In 1966, Hungarian-style napoleons and doborschtorte, gerbeauds and tortes arrived from the Farkas Bakery on W. 28th Street in Ohio City and Robert Jensch recalled the trips he made to the Market to deliver the baked goods from his Uncle Albert’s bakery on Ridge and Pearl Roads.
“Parma Home Bakery was owned by my Uncle Albert Jensch from 1929 to 1974. We prepared everything from scratch and I delivered it fresh every market day All the breads, the rye and white, Vienna, raisin; German-style pumpernickel that looked like a small brick and had to be sliced very thin on a special slicer; dry and soft rye; Jewish egg breads; Easter bread with raisins; hot cross buns; French breads and hard dinner rolls went into wicker baskets with lids. We also sold lamb cakes for Easter, big sheet cakes with buttercream icing, all kinds of German pastry and kolachy, Danish kolachy (the difference is in the dough), strudel, bear claws, lady locks, turnovers, cakes, kuchens, whipped cream pies, date nuts cakes, cream puffs, and éclairs. We had 15 bakers working in the shop but only a couple at the stand. In 1939, I was driving a full-sized panel truck to make the deliveries. I would get up at 4am before school to make the deliveries. Most of our delivery boys didn’t know a lot about the Market, except that if they wanted to avoid a fight with the produce guys, they had to get to the loading dock early.”
Today, bakery still arrives at stands like Vera’s, Michael’s, Michelle’s, Theresa’s and Spanos from bake shops throughout the Northeast Ohio area. Most stands still bake a portion of their goods off-site and contract other bakeries to broaden their selection. John and Paula Mitterholzer’s great uncle started a bakery in Old Brooklyn in 1974 and the business is still there, still run by members of the family. They expanded with a stand at the Market, opening Michael’s Bakery in 1980.
“We do old-fashioned hearth baking,” says Paula, “and make things like Euro-style breads, traditional German tortes and Hungarian nut rolls. We produce everything we sell at the original Broadview Road location and deliver in the morning to the Market.”