As Alexandria’s Farmers Market celebrates its 250th anniversary this summer, some vendors enjoy family connections to operations that span more than half that history.
Clarence Devers of Springfield, who will be 80 his next birthday, first started coming to the market when he was 4, accompanying his mother to her stall.
She had been a regular since she was a baby, accompanying her own father to his stall, and Devers’ grandfather followed the same pattern as a child. In one incarnation or another, there's been a Devers on Market Square for more than 150 years.
"We used to have just an open shed here," Devers explained, sitting by his produce stand, which fills one of the cherished spaces nearest City Hall. The longest-standing vendors get those spaces, protected from the weather.
Attending to customers was Devers' assistant, Keith Morehead from Virginia Hill. "He's been helping me since he was 10 years old," Devers said. "His mother used to own a restaurant, and I worked there."
Another longtime vendor duo is the brother/sister team of Leonard Dove and Doris Cassidy. "I've been coming here for 43 years, when I accompanied my mother," Dove said. "In the last few years, there's been a real change — more vendors and more customers."
The Dove stall sells flowers of all varieties. "We raise all the flowers we sell here ourselves," he explained. “But, we also have a business in Spotsylvania. You can't raise everything yourself for that type operation."
THROUGHOUT ITS long history, Market Square has been home not only to food for the body but also sustenance for the intellect. It has always served as a gathering place for the populace to interact both socially and intellectually.
The first courthouse was built on the eastern side of the square in 1753, when Alexandria became the seat of Fairfax County government. It was accompanied by the town jail, with its stocks and whipping post.
That courthouse was the only polling place in the county and, therefore, drew "a rough and rowdy crowd of men from all over the county," according to local historian Effie C. Dunstan.
With food and an alcoholic punch called "bumbo" flowing as freely as the political discourse, "Ladies were strictly advised to stay off the streets on Election Day," Dunstan reported.
In 1757, the court deeded the square to Alexandria on one condition, that it forever be used as a market place. If it was used for any other purpose, the deed specified, "the sale was to be declared void and the land again to revert to Fairfax County." At that point the market had been operating for four years.
George Washington, a farming entrepreneur, became a trustee of the market in 1786. He sold wagonloads of produce at the market and paid particular attention to it as a business enterprise.
A SECRET OF the market’s longevity of the market is that it has always operated under a strict set of rules and procedures. One rule remains as printed in the Alexandria Gazette in 1876: "To sell it here, you got to grow it or make it at home."
The market master serves as primary enforcer of that rule, as well as overseer of market operations. As a trustee of the market, Washington might be considered the very first market master. Today the title is held by Donald Dodson, who acquired it in 1985.
"When I took over, there were only 13 vendors still participating in the market each week," Dodson said. "Within six months we had between 160 and 170 crammed into every possible space.”
It led to a division of vendors into seven categories of products, which applies to the markets 116 vendors today. Of those, 18 sell food other than produce; six sell framed art; two wearable art; 25 handicrafts; seven jewelry; and the remainder offer produce.
"We have a current waiting list of approximately 153 vendors," Dodson said. “I just sent out the questionnaire to see if they all wanted to remain on the list. Eighty percent said yes.”
He does give preference to vendors who sell produce. "We will give them space over others on the waiting list," Dodson added. "If I have an opening in produce, we will fill it immediately."
RECOGNIZED AS the oldest continuously operating farmers market in the United States, Alexandria's is used as a model for others nationwide. "I've had calls from as far away as Alaska on how to start and operate a farmers market," Dodson said.
In his weekday job, Dodson is chief of the city’s facilities management division. But his Saturdays begin well before dawn to make sure the market is ready for its first customers at 5 a.m. It closes five hours later.
Two of the longest-participating art vendors are Lucy Johnson and Byron Williams, who sell pottery and handwoven baskets, respectively. Johnson has been part of the market for 25 years and Williams for 20 years.
"When I started here there were only about eight or 10 vendors," Johnson, of Arlington, recalled. She learned pottery at the Torpedo Factory, and turned to the market after filling her quota for pots at home.
At the time, she said, "most customers came to get their vegetables and leave. There was not the specialization of vendors as there are today. Don's done a wonderful job, and I've made a lot of good friends here.”
Williams, from Accokeek Creek, Md., sells both handwoven baskets and gourd creations. "I'm here every Saturday unless I'm doing a craft show somewhere," he said. "I try to do most of the Colonial craft shows such as the one in September at Mount Vernon, because my craft is a traditional one."
One stall with a perpetual long line of customers is Maribeth Nyerges’ stand, Maribeth’s Bakery. "We have a very loyal customer base. They know we'll be here, and they come," she said.
That fact was backed up by Dodson and other vendors. Maribeth is here no matter what the weather — even in the dead of winter, they acknowledged.
"We started baking things at home, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger,” she said. “I've been here 15 years. This is the most important part of my week.”