For over 140 seasons, The Horton Farmers’ Market has been a central aspect of St. Thomas and Elgin County’s history and growth, offering visitors an array of produce, services, crafts and more. Time and time again, the market has proven to be a success through the ages, bringing in crowds every Saturday of the season, eager to find a sweet treat, fresh vegetables, a gift, and more. While the market concept has remained similar through the years, its importance and meaning have since evolved.
When first established in 1878, named for Ed Horton, a former mayor of St. Thomas who donated land for the market site, the market played a pivotal role in community life. It was a hub for regional bounty – both from land and lake and the market became a bustling community hub for all in the area. Farming opportunities had brought families of farmers to the region, with plenty more visitors stopping in the small town by train. Being the middle stop between Detroit and Buffalo, St. Thomas began to grow as a city, with the market attracting tourists and residents alike.
Back then, grocery stores and supermarkets still needed to be developed into what we know now, leaving families to purchase foods, goods and services from different farmers and businesses within their town. While today you can pick up shoes, fruits and gifts at a single stop, back then, you would have to go to specialized businesses, each focused on one primary purpose or service. The market brought together the opportunity for customers to get all their goods in one central place. For many merchants of the early days, the market was their primary selling point for their products, making it vital to their business and income.
Modern grocery stores soon emerged as the city began to develop into the 20th century, yet the market remained essential to the community. The market would bring many families success, encouraging agriculture during an era of modern development and downtown infrastructure. Even with the expansion of grocery stores and supermarkets, the market still brought in the same crowd of customers, eager to receive products of a quality and freshness chain grocers could never compete with, all the while knowing exactly where the revenue would go.
The market declined in the 1980s. Resellers (vendors who source products from terminals, not fields) moved in and crowded out the farmers and producers. Many producers left, and the market dwindled- this is one of the primary reasons we strive to ensure the integrity of our producer-based market mandate.
When the discussion of closing the market to save money sprung up in 1995, community members quickly assembled the Horton Market Association. Together, they succeeded in keeping the market running, with any plans of halting the weekly event cancelled in 1996. Since then, the market has continued to thrive, briefly closing in 2006 for pavilion renovations before triumphantly returning later that season with a reinforced mandate as a producer-based market, and in 2020 amid the pandemic, before reopening under the direction of the St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation in 2021.
From its first debut in a small town to becoming a weekly event in a city of over 42,000 residents, the Horton Farmers’ Market has proven a vital component of St. Thomas and the surrounding area, acting as a platform of opportunity, with a ticket towards success.