Every Saturday morning, from the May long weekend to Thanksgiving, one of Red Deer’s most popular public events springs to life. It is the weekly Red Deer Public (Farmer’s) Market.
The market is a commercial venue for fresh produce and a great array of other goods, services and entertainments. However, it is much more than that. It is a true community cultural and social event.
Hence people gather at tables, set up by the food vendors, for hot coffee, food and friendship. Others sit on the concrete steps of the Arena to rest their feet and “people watch.” Most stroll leisurely amongst the stalls and canopies to see what is on offer this week and to bump into family and friends.
The very first public market was started in Red Deer in 1906, not long after the community was incorporated as a town. This market operated on the large open public square, immediately west of the Fire Hall/Town Offices, where City Hall Park is located today. Sometimes in inclement weather, the Rink on the corner of Morrison (52) Street and Nanton (48) Avenue was used.
Unfortunately, this pioneer public market did not survive the tough economic years that followed the First World War. However, in the early 1970s, an energetic young high school art teacher and city councillor, Dennis Moffat was struck with the idea of starting a farmer’s market in Red Deer while relaxing in a canoe while on vacation in northwestern Ontario.
When he got home, he pitched the idea to the mayor. He was told that the idea had failed in the past and was unlikely to succeed now. However, he was also told that if he would like to give the idea a try, to go ahead. Moreover, he was offered a location at Anniversary Square in front of the grandstand on the old Red Deer Exhibition Grounds.
Thus, the first Red Deer Farmer’s Market was organized. It was originally an all-day event, but was only staged in the fall. Although, there were only 18 vendors at the first market, it proved to be a great success.
In 1981-1982, the Westerner Exposition was relocated to a new site on the southern edge of the City. The Farmer’s Market also relocated. It briefly operated on Ross Street, with the traffic being temporarily closed for the morning. Even more briefly, it moved to a site near the old C.P.R. station.
The Farmer’s Market then moved to a parking lot of 49 Avenue and 49 Street, immediately east of the Hudson’s Bay department store. Over the next five years, the market continued to grow and diversify.
In 1987, the market moved back to a spot in front of the Red Deer Arena, very close to its original location. In 2000, because of the incredible diversity of food, merchandise and services offered, the provincial government ruled that Red Deer could no longer be considered a farmer’s market. Instead, it was officially, designated a public market.
Nevertheless, ever since it’s founding, Dennis Moffat has felt that one of the market’s greatest strengths is its diversity of vendors and activities.
While change in government designation meant that there were new, more restrictive rules on the preparation and sale of food, Moffat was convinced that to cut back on the number of non-food stalls would severely undermine the spirit and character of the market.
The past decade has proven him right. Each year, the incredible popularity of the Red Deer Public Market has increased. The growth has become so tremendous that there is often quite a squeeze to find spots for all of the vendors and to find parking for the thousands of weekly patrons.
Hence, Red Deer enjoys one of the large and most popular public markets in the Province of Alberta if not in all of Canada. It is an achievement to be celebrated as the 40th annual Red Deer Public Market commences on May 22, 2010.
Michael Dawe is the curator of history for the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.