The St. Matthews Farmers Market celebrates 15 years in an area flush with farming heritage
By Penny Peavler
Photos by Dan Dry / PriceWeber
Noted author, Wendell Berry, says, “Eating is an agricultural act,” and Saint Matthews, Kentucky, is no stranger to either growing food or eating it. Following a more than 200 year tradition, the St. Matthews Farmers Market was founded in May 2007 by a small and very determined group of members of Beargrass Christian Church, at the corner of Browns Lane and Shelbyville Road. Member, Leslie Geoghegan, said the group had three objectives in mind, “Creating a festive, family-friendly Saturday event, available free to everyone from late spring to early fall, providing a vibrant sales venue for local farmers to sell their home-grown produce and continuing the congregation’s long tradition of reaching outside the church walls to serve the wider Louisville community.”
Fifteen years ago, few such markets existed in Louisville or had available space for growth. Bob Callander, a St. Matthews businessman for three decades, explored markets in other cities and was determined to bring a larger market to Louisville. As the first of many projects that Callander would come to envision and launch, he organized a core group of interested Beargrass members to consider the concept for Saturday mornings on the church’s outdoor campus. Their goals were simple but their aims were high.
Initially, getting the concept off the ground was not so simple. Callander’s team determined they would move forward if 25 farmers and producers could be convinced to participate. After many seemingly unfruitful visits and communications, a breakthrough came with a call from Irvin Stoll, owner of Gypsy Ridge Farm in Southern Indiana. After seeing the layout and location of Beargrass, Stoll proclaimed, “I’ve been selling at farmers markets for 30 years, and this is the best venue I’ve ever seen.”
With Gypsy Ridge as the first, 22 more farmers and producers signed on as charter members and the St. Matthews Farmers Market was born. It was an instant success, bringing an amazing vibrancy to the corner of Shelbyville Road and Browns Lane every Saturday, May to September. It would soon become an award-winning market on a statewide basis, earning “Market of the Year” from Kentucky Proud and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. “Finding locally grown produce, meat, eggs, dairy products and more at the peak of freshness is the advantage of Kentucky’s farmers’ markets,” Commissioner Ryan Quarles, himself a sixth-generation farmer, said. “Purchasing your food from a Kentucky Proud farmers market not only supports your local farmers but also keeps the money you spend in your community.”
Founding farmer Dave Garey, of Garey Farms in Paris, Kentucky, says what keeps him coming back are the people. As a purveyor of prestige meats including his famous chorizo and breakfast sausages, bacon, jams, jellies and Nature’s Rhythm certified hemp products, the Garey’s market throughout Kentucky but Dave always spends his Saturday mornings in Saint Matthews. “Building relationships with the people for whom you are farming means something. It gives purpose to our work and connects us,” said Garey.
Because of the 200 year tradition, the agricultural heritage of St. Matthews has roots that run deep and date back to the 18th century. The area around the Falls of the Ohio River, what would become Jefferson County, must have been a paradise. The local waterways were rich in fish and mussels, the land had fertile soils, there were wetlands filled with waterfowl in the fall, and the forest uplands supported Eastern elk, wild turkeys and white-tailed deer. These were prime hunting grounds, battled over for centuries by the Shawnee and Iroquois. Col. James John Floyd, of Virginia, the county’s first landowner and early settler, had his pick of the most geographically desirable land. In November 1779, he built a cabin, and later a fort, on Beargrass Creek, five minutes south of the St. Matthews Farmers Market site, on what is now Breckinridge Lane. His estate was a 1,000-acre tract in the heart of St. Matthews.
Other veterans who were awarded parcels of land for their service in the French and Indian War, and later, the American Revolution, built homesteads in the region during the early 19th century. The major crops were tobacco, hemp and livestock. Later, farmers diversified their crops, and a local food economy was established.
The community developed because the surrounding farmland was fertile and well-watered by springs. Strategically located on a pioneer road (Shelbyville Road) that connected the Falls of the Ohio with the seat of state government and the Bluegrass Region, the town was known as Gilman’s Point in the 1840s. Re-named St. Matthews in 1851, initial development was around the intersection of Westport Road, but other important roads converged here, too. At the turn of the 20th century, the center of St. Matthews was an open space with a scale where produce and other agricultural products were weighed. This was near the present-day Shelbyville Road Plaza, now home to Quest Outdoors, Trader Joe’s and Feeders Supply among many others. That area was also the first home to Beargrass Christian Church, known as Beargrass Baptist Church.
As the population grew, farmers began to concentrate on raising potatoes and onions as cash crops. An influx of Irish immigrants brought more demand for these staples. In 1909, the St. Matthews Ice and Cold Storage opened. The facility made and sold ice, and offered local farmers a place to store and refrigerate produce, fruits, meats and other perishables, prior to their sale. In 1910, a cooperative was formed to market and negotiate the sale price of local produce, primarily potatoes. The St. Matthews Produce Exchange, which operated into the 1940s, was adjacent to the “ice house.”
An inter-urban spur line connected Louisville to these new facilities, which made St. Matthews the marketplace for the region’s agricultural products. Crops came in from surrounding communities and the railroad shipped them to Louisville and distant cities. So many potatoes were grown here that St. Matthews became a major center in the country for this crop. By 1920, more than 13 million pounds were sold.
A 1925 article in the Christian Science Monitor stated that Jefferson County “was noted as the leader in second-crop potatoes. Its climate and soil permitted two crops of tubers on the same land in the same year.” At that time, the St. Matthews Produce Exchange had 400 members and shipped 1,200 train carloads of potatoes and onions annually. The area began changing in the mid-20th century. Gradually, the farms were subdivided and developed with residential housing and shopping developments.
The community’s agricultural heritage continues anew each Saturday morning that the St. Matthews Farmers Market is open when farmers from the surrounding region come to sell their crops. Our forebears would be proud of how this local tradition continues today.
Farmer and Author, Art Lander, of Holy Branch Farm contributed to this article and “St. Matthews: The Crossroads of Beargrass,” by Samuel W. Thomas, published in 1999 by the Beargrass-St. Matthews Historical Society, Inc. is the main source of the historical information.
St. Matthews Farmers Market
Beargrass Christian Church
4100 Shelbyville Road
Louisville, KY 40207