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Public Markets are at the Epicenter of Community

The Worcester Market, photograph from Worcester Historical Museum

Despite all of the news about economic globalization with big box stores and a deep decline in numbers and importance, public markets are undergoing a resurgence as people demand to rebuild local economies and increase human interaction. Taking the back seat in the discussion of food distribution and the obligation of trust between vendors and shoppers since the mid-20th century, public markets are finally reclaiming their stance on the importance of increased access to fresh foods, diversity and the embodiment of community engagement. 

In Public Market and Civic Culture, historian Helen Tangires writes, “The public market is a key piece in understanding the profoundly important shift from agrarian to industrial food systems in 19th-century America.” Considered as a place thriving for elements beyond the sale of food, public markets were civic spaces and a common ground “where citizens and governments defined the shared values of the community.”

The earliest American markets brought together farmers, fishermen, and other food producers with the townsfolk and merchants at scheduled, open-air events. With Boston’s rapid growth in the early days of the colony, John Winthrop wrote of a public marketplace on Great Street and it remained as the first record of a public market in the New World. With popularity came density and quickly, the outdoor, open-air events needed reconsideration and relocation.  In 1742, Peter Faneuil built Boston’s first market hall which expanded until 1826 with the opening of Quincy Market. By this time, public markets were social and political hubs for cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

Chestnut Farms located within the Boston Public Market.
Chestnut Farms located within the Boston Public Market.

Even in Central Massachusetts, the Worcester Market Building opened in 1915 with a terracotta facade that brought iconic agricultural imagery to the corner of Main and Chandler Street. By 1917, 25,000 customers visited the market on a typical Saturday and the building had capacity to accommodate 4,500 shoppers at a time. And, aside from being the largest market in the country for more than a decade, The Worcester Market Building was also the most sanitary. With a startlingly deep foundation of reinforced concrete and non-absorbent floors, the building was deemed “absolutely rat-and-vermin-proof” by its original operators.

Their place in culture was short-lived with the advent of supermarkets’ emphasis on convenience and lower prices—as a result from larger purchasing volumes. The supermarkets, intended to challenge the dominance of food retailers, became a major impact on public markets in Boston and throughout the country as it affected food consumption and buying habits. The close-knit social fabric once admired by patrons of the public markets like Faneuil Hall and Worcester Market was quickly traded for convenience and less-engaging human interaction while shopping. The supermarkets adopted elements of the public market style with the appearance of fresh produce, the inclusion of fish and meat markets, all while moving further away from the element of civic space and common ground.

The Massachusetts Cheese Guild finds success in selling at public markets.
The Massachusetts Cheese Guild finds success in selling at public markets.

Now, between the emergence of supermarkets and the slow demise of public markets, there was an unseen growth for farmers markets. According to data from the USDA, the number of farmers markets in the United States has grown by 76% since 2008, registering over eight-thousand markets on the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory. In a recent survey analyzing the reasons for shopping in farmers markets, 63% of responders answered that freshness was their prime reason, 54% indicated price savings and 12 percent attributed their shopping habits at farmers markets to the social atmosphere. Farmers markets, in essence, provide the same quality and ethical shopping experience consumers valued from public markets, but without the stability of year-round shopping options and permanent locations.

Since the vital burst of farmers markets, Boston responded with the opening of the Boston Public Market, after decades of a marketless downtown. An indoor, year-round marketplace featuring 35 New England artisans and food producers delivering fresh produce, meat and poultry, seafood and prepared meal options, the Boston Public Market has become an instant success. A local shopper described the new location as “a dream come true” because of its diverse food options and accessibility to fresh, low-cost produce. Vendors and businesses like Noodle Lab – a ramen noodle shop – and Union Square Donuts find comfort in the Boston Public Market for its ability to bring in a diverse food traffic outside of their normal demographics. “We want to share our donuts with as many consumers as possible and having a shop located in the Boston Public Market is an ideal addition to our lineup of locations,” said a Union Square Donuts employee. Although the already prepared foods are the biggest elements to the public market experience, the Boston Public Market also houses producers and farmers from Appleton Farms, the Massachusetts Cheese Guild, and Chestnut Farms to give consumers access to freshly farmed vegetables, organic products and unique cheeses and wines. The Boston Public Market Association developed and operates the Market with public impact goals to support: economic development, New England food system resilience, public health and education, affordability and access and Worcester is on the brink to do the same.

Construction starting at Kelley Square Market
Construction starting at Kelley Square market’s Harding Green.

In the midst of a growth spurt, Worcester looks back on its roots in an attempt to infuse what the city needs the most: a common space to define and explore shared values among the diverse culture that breathes life into Worcester’s identity. In the Canal District, the Kelley Square market, Harding Green, seeks to provide a “focus on community, the local diversity and embrace human interactions with ethnic street foods,” according to businessman and owner, Allen Fletcher in a recent interview with Mass Foodies. While this new public market may be the tipping point Worcester needs to readdress the consumer buying habit, it can also add to the city’s current influx of farmers markets and inadequate access to fresh foods. 

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Madame Rhubarb And Worcester’s War on Alcohol

Worcester Police Department patrolling Harrington Corner—looking up Pleasant Street—during Prohibition. (Collection of Worcester Historical Museum)

“Twenty-eight federal prohibition agents led by John Hall, prohibition enforcement director for Worcester county, and part of the Worcester liquor squad under Sergt, Joseph P. Murphy, working independent of each other, yesterday staged the greatest series of raids Worcester has seen in months. More than a dozen alleged ‘speakeasies’ were busted by the federal agents, while up to a late hour last night, six places had been raided by local police. Liquor and utensils of all varieties, seized by both squads, was estimated to be worth more than $3000,” published the Worcester Daily Telegram on January 8, 1928.

The war on alcohol had reached Worcester and inevitably sparked a debate among the residents, politicians and visitors, alike, creating a strict line between “sides” during the prohibition era. So, with a history of secrecy, debauchery, and lawlessness, how did this era of necessity shape the industry opening the doors to modern day pop-culture speakeasies like, 67 Orange Street in NYC, Backbar and Bogie’s Place in Boston, and Bootlegger’s in Worcester.

According to Roy Rosenzweig, author of Eight Hours for What We Will, saloonkeeping was the most accessible means of upward social mobility for immigrants in Worcester prior to the prohibition laws. More than three-quarters of Worcester’s Irish immigrants who had become small proprietors by 1900 were engaged in some aspect of the liquor trade. As the desire for saloonkeeping grew favorable among immigrants, the era of drunkenness emerged and catapulted Worcester into an era of crime, abuse and gender isolation. In flow with the series of events happening across the states, drunkenness began to surge outrage and destroy families. Often the result of liquor consumption, women and children were abused and mistreated within families. And while women, not to be implied as non-consumers of liquor, were “forbidden by police regulation to patronize the bar-rooms,” leaving them at home with the children and without a husband.

Bay State House, where deadhorse hill currently resides, was once the subject of one of Worcester's bootlegger's raids during prohibition. (Collection of Worcester Historical Museum)
Bay State House, where deadhorse hill currently resides, was once the subject of one of Worcester’s bootlegger’s raids during prohibition. (Collection of Worcester Historical Museum)

At a time in where labor workers dominated the working industry in Worcester, drunkenness impacted the everyday man. Employers began to see the destroying elements of liquor consumption and its heavily weighted influence on worker production. As production declined, employers began taking a stand against drunkenness and between the family abuse and lack of stable labor workers, Worcester voted to become a “dry” city on January, 15, 1920.

But Worcester was ready for the prohibition era.

While public drunkenness was an offense that accounted for approximately 60 percent of all arrests in Worcester over a span of 8 years, the ideals of saloonkeeping were never deemed undesirable. Instead, the saloon patrons operated outside of, if not against, the formal legal system.

“You see, Vernon Hotel was the most popular speakeasy in Worcester and remains to be the only speakeasy in Worcester today,” says Bob Largess, owner of Hotel Vernon. Owned by two brothers, Frank “Bossy” McGady and Beaven McGady, in the 1920s, the Hotel Vernon is a booming piece of Worcester’s prohibition history. Maintained on the forefront as an Inn, Hotel Vernon served as a speakeasy to those who knew how to get in. Serving ales and liquor during the dry era, Hotel Vernon was simply the place to be. The area, once known as Green Island, was titled “Worcester’s second downtown.”

“During the prohibition era, if you were in the know, then you knew about the Hotel Vernon’s speakeasy. You knew that the sight of Babe Ruth drinking was part of the Hotel Vernon way. It was, at no point, out of the ordinary,” says Largess. Hotel Vernon was built in 1901 and served as the heart of Vernon Square. “This was an area that prided itself on the sense of community. Everyone knew everyone and everyone looked out for everyone. The speakeasy was a home away from home for many during the prohibition era.”

“There were plenty of raids happening in Worcester during the speakeasy era but Hotel Vernon was not one of them,” said Largess. “Not to say this was the reason, but Bossy McGady was a state trooper at the time he co-owned Hotel Vernon.”

With a family history, strongly tied to the speakeasies, bosses and the prohibition era, Largess is a piece of walking history. “The prohibition era in Worcester was something else. My family owned a speakeasy on Accommodation Street and it heavily impacted the way my family lived for generations to come,” he says. “My mother, because she is a woman, was never allowed inside the speakeasy. To this day, when I ask questions, she simply says she doesn’t know much about the family speakeasy because she wasn’t allowed in. This was during a time in where women were prohibited from saloons and had little rights but I always wonder if she claims to not know anything because that’s just the speakeasy way of life.”

The original speakeasy still exists at the Hotel Vernon (via free 48)
The original speakeasy still exists at the Hotel Vernon (via free 48)

“Speakeasies weren’t openly talked about during the prohibition, for obvious reasons. At Hotel Vernon, to get in, you had to know how. You see, McGady put up doors around the inside of the first floor of the hotel to maintain secrecy. Walking in from the front, it seemed like a normal inn, but through the right door, it became the best-known secret,” says Largess. “To get in, you had to knock on the right door and say, ‘I’m looking for the yacht club’ and when asked, ‘who sent you? you had to reply, ‘Madame Rhubarb’.”

Madame Rhubarb, a rarity for this era, was a Polish chambermaid and quickly became one of the most recognizable faces of Hotel Vernon. In the most recent years, Madame Rhubarb passed away and her ashes might be making their way to Hotel Vernon for permanent residency.

“While Hotel Vernon was reaping in the benefits of the prohibition era and creating mixology with the first ever Cape Cod drink, Worcester was in a constant uproar over the prohibition laws, whether they were for or against them,” says Largess. “The exclusivity of speakeasies made them appealing and the freedom of drinking when you want, was also appealing.”

Today, for restaurants and bars to compete, many are turning to the “freedom” that speakeasies offered—at least in concept. “I knew that I wanted to recreate a speakeasy,” says Celeste Zack, co-owner of Bootleggers Prohibition Pub and whose family has been in Worcester since the 1920s and owned the space previously occupied by her father’s EVO. “We want Bootleggers Prohibition Pub to be a transformative experience into Worcester’s old city history.” While the restaurant blends small portions of influence of Italian and Asian flavors, and boasts a modern vibe, the homage to 1920s living is not lost.

Bootleggers Prohibition Pub on Chandler Street in Worcester, MA
Today, Bootleggers Prohibition Pub is cashing in on the concept in its Chandler Street restaurant.

As Zack’s decision to recreate the speakeasy became final, Chef Al Maykel III began to work on his craft. “I sat in the basement for 24 hours after my sister gave me the prohibition theme for the restaurant and became fully focused on creating a menu that offered a peek into the well-known era,” says Chef Maykel III. Bootleggers Prohibition Pub is all about embracing the past and with drinks like The Old Fashioned, French 77 and Moonshine and instilling the exclusive feel that prohibition is known to give.

“Whatever your personal attitude may be toward prohibition, it is the foremost question before America today. Educators and great industries are agreed that for the common weal of America prohibition must stay, and if it is to stay it must be enforced,” wrote the Worcester Division of Allied Forces of Prohibition in an ad in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette on January 2, 1932. Only two years later, on November 4, 1934, Worcester voted to officiate liquor licenses and make saloonkeeping a legal business.