Dan Wuchter, owner of the Allentown Fairgrounds Farmers Market, laughs when he thinks back as to how long he has worked there.
“Since 1955 when it opened at this location,” he said. “I was 15 years old.”
This does not mean he was a lay-about until that time. Wuchter’s Pennsylvania Dutch roots did not allow for sloth. “My family had a chicken farm so I guess I was about 6 or 7 when I started selling eggs door to door.”
The sole owner of the market since 1992, Wuchter is best known for his Dan’s Bar-B-Qued Chicken business, which is now run by his son Dan, Jr.
Come Thursday, Friday or Saturday, customers, holding their numbered tickets designating a place in line, can be found waiting for a whole rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes and vegetables cooked on the spot.
“I can remember when I started doing this in the 1960s, people thought it was kind of funny,” recalls Wuchter. “I sold 6 dinners on Friday and 9 on Saturday. Most folks brought unprepared food here and cooked it at home. They did not understand why you would want a cooked meal. Today prepared items made from the food that our vendors offer are among the market’s biggest selling items.”
Wuchter does not see this as a departure from tradition but as an updating of it, part of the flexibility of the business. “We had a visit from the New York Times recently and the reporter asked if local people realized what a treasure the market is,” says his wife Laurie, who plays an active role in the business.
Regular customers of the Allentown Farmers Market do seem to understand how essential it is to them. Swinging through the sets of red double doors they head for stands they have known since childhood. The market’s oldest stand is Berghold’s, a fresh fruit and vegetable family run business that opened in 1955. Shoppers find not just the food they are looking for but vendors whose fathers and, in some cases, grandfathers, they have dealt with for years.
Despite its tradition the Allentown Farmers Market is not a museum piece. It offers a wide variety of edibles to suit a number of tastes from Polish to Italian to Vietnamese. And there is still plenty of pork and sauerkraut available from Amish, Mennonite and other vendors to reaffirm the market’s Pennsylvania German roots.
The first farmers market in the Lehigh Valley was in Easton. In 1752 city founder William Parsons noted the new town was “very well supplied with meat, beef, pork, mutton and turnips, etc.” Area farmers sold their goods on Centre Square. In 1790 a market building was built.
Bethlehem’s first farmers market opened in 1800 near what is now the Hotel Bethlehem. It lasted there until 1824. Other farmers markets sprang up in the city. The South Side Bethlehem Farmers Market at 3rd and Adams Street, which opened in 1874, was a fixture for over 100 years.
Allentown got its first market house on Center Square in 1817. It was a wood and stone structure, 20 feet wide by 40 feet long had several entrances and was open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. in the winter. The post of market master, whose duty it was to regulate the market, was created by the city in 1824.
That market house survived until 1848 when a large fire wiped out most of the business district. At the height of the blaze city officials, fearful the market house would burn and feed the flames, tore it down. It would be 1859 before a new municipal market was built at the corner of Church and Linden Streets. In the meantime some private markets were established.
A new farm market building was built near 6th and Linden in the 1890s called the Central Market Hall. But disputes between the owners, the city and the farmers lead the building’s owners to give up on the market idea and convert it into what became the Lyric Theater in 1899, now Symphony Hall.
Among the private farmers markets that grew up in the city in the mid 19th century was one at the old Allentown Fairgrounds, then located in the vicinity of 5th and Liberty Streets. It occupied Industrial Hall, one of the buildings used for the fair.
In 1889 the Lehigh County Agricultural Society decided the location of the Fairgrounds should be moved to 17th and Chew. The market followed it. By 1911 it had merged with something called the Morning Market which for a number of years had operated at the corner of 8th and Gordon Streets. That year it was housed in a brick structure underneath the new Fairgrounds grandstand.
In 1943 Robert Wheeler, a former Allentown city councilman, acquired a large former silk mill building on 12th Street between Chew and Liberty Streets and opened it as a farmers market. This drew in many farmers until 1955 when it moved back to the Allentown Fairgrounds.
In 1958 a new wing was built to the west of the older market connected by a ramp. The market was now at 90,000 square feet, making it among one of the largest markets in the northeast.
Wuchter is aware that the food buying habits of Americans have changed with large supermarkets being where many people choose to shop. But he has noticed recently an upswing in the number of people who come to the market, which he thinks might be related to the renewed interest nationally in fresh homegrown produce, which is just fine with him. “I know it sounds crazy at my age but when I get up in the morning I still can’t wait to get to work.”