Columbus has been a market town since it began as a incorporated city more than 200 years ago.
Founded in 1812 on the high bank at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers, Columbus grew slowly at first as early settlers carved their homes from a dense forest amid the War of 1812. The earliest public building in the new city was the Ohio Penitentiary, which was located on the site of the Priscilla R. Tyson Cultural Arts Center on East Main Street today. Convicts were put to work and helped build the Ohio Statehouse and other buildings in and around Statehouse Square, while other enterprising newcomers built houses, taverns, and inns in town.
One of the first commercial structures built in the city by its four “owners” was a public market. Built in 1814 on High Street just south of Rich Street, the simple, two-story wooden structure was a place for residents to get fresh food of all kinds as it became available.
The new market met people’s needs, but sitting in the middle of the street, it was in the wrong place, as bus and trolley traffic had to first avoid a 40-foot Indian mound at Mound Street and then work their way around the market.
In 1817, members of a newly formed city council in the new borough of Columbus decided to move the market and built a new one on State Street just west of High Street. This larger structure functioned quite well as a market as well as a meeting place for city officials and local residents. The Market on State Street served the needs of Columbus residents for the next 30 years. But during these years, Columbus began to grow as a regional center.
In 1831, the Ohio Canal and the National Road came to Columbus. A town of 2,000 people in 1832 became a town of 5,000 people in 1834. With the arrival of large numbers of new immigrants from Ireland and Germany, Columbus officials in the 1840s found that more people needed more market. So, in 1849, city officials bought an entire city block along 4th Street between Town and Rich streets for $2,000.
Later that year, a brand new market that ran the entire length of the city block was opened for business. It was a busy place. In a time when an “ice box” was just that, most food had to be used quickly, unless it was canned or dried for later use. People went to the market quite often and bought just what was needed for immediate use.
Peletiah Webster Huntington came to Columbus to seek his fortune and found it working in local banks. In 1866 he opened his own bank on the southwest corner of Broad and High Streets. Every morning he left his home on Broad Street and walked a few blocks to his banking house. He carried an umbrella if necessary and usually carried his willow market basket. He also picked up twigs and branches in the local gutters.
“PW” spent his days on the steps of his bank, where he stiffened these pieces of wood while asking passers-by to consider visiting his bank. At the end of the day, he went to the market and bought the foods he preferred for his family. Huntington was a kind and thrifty type of guy, and also a very successful banker.
The second floor of the Central Market was a meeting hall, home to the Columbus City Council, and served as a local courtroom. A two-story brick jail was built just south of Central Market. Court and council meetings were quite interesting to hear and see as dozens of live chickens, pigs and goats bleated right below.
The Columbus City Council moved to a new City Hall in 1872, but the public uses of the second-floor meeting room at Central Market continued—despite the noise below.
As Columbus grew, so did the need for markets. By the turn of the 20th century, smaller North, West, East and South markets were in operation. Heavily remodeled and remodeled in 1930, Central Market at its peak served 20,000 people every Saturday with as many as 65 meat vendors.
But as Columbus grew, the neighborhood around Central Market declined as more suburbs grew. In the 1950s the planning doctrine of ‘urban renewal’ was in vogue. A 60-acre site south and west of Statehouse Square was slated for demolition as the Market-Mohawk area. In 1966, after an unsuccessful battle to save it, Central Market was demolished and a bus station took its place.
But even today, in the age of supermarkets and the ability to order food online to be delivered to your house, there is still a desire for public markets.
North Market, owned by the city of Columbus, has been around since 1876 and is still going strong. In fact, several improvements and an 18,000-square-foot expansion at North Market are part of the plans with the construction of the 32-Merchant Building apartment and hotel tower being built on the market’s former parking lot.
And the East Market food hall now operates in a converted trolley car barn in the Franklin Park neighborhood.
Many people in the Columbus area simply like to go to the market.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes this “As It Were” history column for The Dispatch.