by Art Lander, Jr. of Holy Branch Farm, Founding Farm of the St. Matthews Market
It’s no surprise that the St. Matthews Farmers Market has been so tremendously successful since it opened in 2007. The campus of Beargrass Christian Church is strategically located on our community’s major thoroughfare. The layout of the tents creates a festive L-shaped market, with plenty of room for shoppers to circulate and socialize. Live music and the smell of coffee and breakfast food fills the air.
The market committee, market manager and volunteer staff do a great job at keeping everything running smoothly. A weekly e-newsletter sent to the market’s loyal customers details the local products that vendors will offer for sale every Saturday — fresh produce, meats, wine and cheese, and arts and crafts. As we gather for another season of fellowship and local food, let’s reflect on what might be another reason for our market’s success — the agricultural heritage of St. Matthews. These roots 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 — local waterways rich in fish and mussels, fertile soils, 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 our market site, on what is now Breckinridge Lane. His estate was a 1,000 acre tract at 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 plantations 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.
Our 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.
As the population grew, farmers began to concentrate on raising potatoes and onions as cash crops. An influx of Irish 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 pointed out 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 car loads 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.
But our community’s agricultural heritage continues anew each Saturday that the St. Matthews Farmers Market is open, when farmers from the surrounding region come here to sell their crops. Our forebearers would be proud.
St. Matthews The Crossroads of Beargrass, by Samuel W. Thomas, published in 1999 by the St. Matthews Historical Society, is the main source of information for Art’s article and is the source of this historic photograph of the St. Matthews market.