Central Market's History
It could be said that the history of Lancaster City and Lancaster Central Market are essentially intertwined. When in 1730 Andrew and James Hamilton laid out the town they designated a 120 foot square lot in the center of town to be a public market. That makes particular sense given that Lancaster was conceived as a "market town".
Gazing at the current, magnificent market house it's difficult to imagine that throughout a large portion of its history Central Market was merely an open space where farmers and others could sell their wares or one or more crude sheds with little more than tables and a roof overhead. Yet from such modest origins springs a living market, active and growing, serving as a source for fresh foods for local folks and a destination for travelers from around the world.
The history of market buildings at this location includes a rough shed built in 1757, addition of three pieces of fire apparatus under the same roof in 1767, and a late- eighteenth century arcade-type building merging the market with City Hall and a Masonic Lodge. This arcade building, facing West King Street, occupied space that currently houses the Heritage Center Museum, Visitor's Center and retail shops.
It is difficult to know the size and number of market stands at any given time but there is evidence that there may have been upwards of 400 stands at one point, the market utilizing a much larger footprint than the current building occupies. It is enlightening to know that the buying and selling of fresh, local produce, meats and baked goods was so essential to daily life - especially in a market town - that from 1818 till after World War One several "curb markets" sprung up around the town. These "curb markets" consisted of local farmers and others pulling in to the curb with wagons or setting up temporary tables, from which they sold their goods.
Further evidence of the need for and popularity of farmers markets is the fact that in the late 19th century at least eight markets were established in various corners of the city. It was because of the fear that the crucial purveying of safe, wholesome foods might be jeopardized and that these privately-owned markets might harbor unfair or unethical practices, that city leaders in Lancaster and other towns sought to provide and protect publically-owned markets.
The current Romanesque Revival market house, designed by architect James Warner, was erected in less than six months in 1889. Its magnificent facade featuring ornate brick and stone work, two towers topped with terra cotta roofs, and other unique features, is a tribute to the importance placed on the presence of a market house in Lancaster. Though the interior of the market appears different today than when it was built, due to the nature of today's stands, there have been almost no structural changes to the building itself. Up-dating has been behind the scenes in the area of mechanicals and services.
Today Central Market is home to stands that have been owned and operated by the same families for many generations. In 1995 it was designated one of the "Great Public Places" in America. And most significantly, after 275 years of existence our market remains essentially unchanged: local farmers and producers selling fresh, wholesome foods to friends and neighbors. It's worth a visit.