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Food, Brews, and the Outdoors: An Inside Look at Shenandoah Valley's Self-Guided Cultural Excursions
Home Grown: Montgomery Farm Women’s Market
You’ve seen them – antique buildings that remain, while the world around them changes. The Montgomery County Farm Women’s Market in Bethesda, Maryland is one of those buildings. It was founded in 1932, during the worst of America’s Great Depression, long before the local food movement made farmers markets a chic destination.
They can’t knock us down,” explains Margaret Johnson as she explains how the building has protected status as a historic landmark. Margaret has been President of the Montgomery County Farm Women’s Cooperative Market for the last thirty years. She started working at this farmer’s market as a young bride. Now, in her late sixties, she’s seen many changes here.
Today, high rises made of concrete and glass surround this historic clapboard building in a thriving urban area. The Farm Women’s Market opened at a time when many people felt hopeless; lost jobs, lost investments, few opportunities on the horizon. And it’s still holding on thanks to a growing appreciation for buying local food and the dedication of hardworking farmers.
The Market originated with a good idea. The wives of local farmers in the Maryland countryside met one night in someone’s kitchen. Their goal was to come up with a way to help supplement the meager earnings their farms were making by selling directly to customers.
The wives decided to market their produce, dairy, baked goods and meats in a suburban area known as Bethesda. They leased a space, and a few years later, built their own wooden structure with stalls for selling their goods. There was no air conditioning, no heat, no refrigeration. The women dressed in white dresses, white stockings, white shoes and hairnets. The husband farmers helped load the trucks and deliver the goods to the Market. They stacked the vegetables, fruit, eggs, freshly shorn rabbits and plucked chickens on top of giant blocks of ice. The women shooed the men away as soon as the doors opened—this was their territory and they made the rules: no men allowed. The men were sent back to the farms until pick up time.
More than half a century ago, one little boy was allowed to work side-by-side with his mother in the Farm Womens Market. His name is Ray Renn, and he’s still here more than fifty years later. Ray recalls life in the early days when he stood on tip-toe to see over the counter. “I was born here,” laughs Ray. “Obviously I wasn’t pulling as many shifts back then.”
There’s a black and white newspaper photo Ray behind his counter full of cabbages, winter squash and brussel sprouts—he was only 12. Ray shares the story of growing up in this Market: “It started in 1942, when my parents first brought me here. They owned the stall and traditionally sold produce. The stall belonged to my grandmother, and then my mother took over. We branched out into flowers and stuff. Early on we had chickens, eggs, our cows made butter. The rules have changed dramatically since we did that.”
“I decided to carry on the tradition when my parents started to take ill in early 1960s. I decided to help them for a few years to decide what I wanted to do–that was 40 years ago—before that it was forced labor,” Ray jokes. For Ray, the farmers that work in the Market are like family: “I grew up here. I went to school–my parents would put me on the bus—and then I came back to work.”
“Oh yeah,” says Ray ruefully. “The rules started getting laxer and laxer as the years moved on. We kept the name—Farm Women’s Market–never wanted to change the name. It was original. I like the history of it. The doors of this building opened in 1938, and until recently some of the original women were working here.”
“We still have tons of regular customers. Unfortunately we see the older customers passing on; a lot of customers have been with us for decades. You realize that when you’ve been here yourself for 53 years,” Ray adds. Margaret thinks people like Ray are a dying breed: “We don’t have that many farmers around like we used to have. The younger generation doesn’t want take over. They can get better jobs making more money.”
Meeting vendors like Ray and Margaret make shopping in a farmer’s market unique. The personal attention you receive and knowing these products were harvested just a short drive from home—well, there’s just something special about that. So, support your local farmer’s market. Besides the freshest, most beautiful produce, and friendly, appreciative smiles, these farmers just might have a story to tell.
Ray Renn’s stall at the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda, established more than 75 years ago.