Glimpse into the lives of the folks from the downtown market in Shamokin
SHAMOKIN - The sun is up barely 30 minutes Saturday morning and the farmers are almost through setting up for market in the downtown.
It's been the same scene for decades every Saturday between April and November - park along Independence Street, open the truck and set up shop on the sidewalk.
The Haupts have been coming for 53 years, Lloyd Wehry for 57 years, Carl Raker for 42 years.
That's not to say there hasn't been change. Just the opposite. The faces, the goods, the foot traffic - there's plenty different. Some farmers are now serving the third and fourth generations of customers.
Business has slowed as the customer base erodes with the population, but the farmers still show up Saturday mornings. Some on Tuesdays and Thursdays, too. Customers show up a little later. And the scene remains as much social as it is mercantile.
'A good life'
Naomi Haupt, or "Janie" as she's known, met her husband, James, through the Shamokin market. They were born only months apart and knew each other their entire lives. Naturally, it was because their parents had market stands.
Janie and James were married in 1960 and two years later opened a stand of their own, Haupt Produce. It remains supplemented in part with fruit and vegetables grown on their Irish Valley farm.
The Haupt name is marked on the side of a box truck parked east of the red light at Eighth and Independence streets. But the business is now their son's, Wilford. He's in Sunbury on Saturdays. They go to Lewisburg and Schuylkill Haven on weekdays.
James still farms and Janie is a regular at the Shamokin stand with the help of a neighbor "kid" from the valley, Bill Donovan. Now 32 years old, Donovan figures he's been helping in the Haupt's fields since he was 7 and made it to market around the time he turned 13.
Together he and Janie unload lettuce, potatoes, apples, strawberries, squash, plants and more. They joke with each other, and with customers. It's as good a way as any to pass the time when they're slow, and an even better method to keep their customers coming back.
"We could have always walked. We have the wheelbarrow," Donovan cracks about saving money, bringing about another in a series of smiles and laughs from Janie.
Janie can't remember all of their customers' names. She swears she knows their faces.
Ed Bendas, of Kulpmont, stops by. His face she knows. He's their second customer on this Saturday. He was picking up potatoes and onions for the "pyrohy workers" of Shamokin's Transfiguration church. Saturday's load was light. It'll pick up as the season moves along. Like the farmers, Bendas says the pyrohy business has also slowed.
Beverly Loeper, of Shamokin, was the first customer. She was there for "the best" dandelion. Theresa "Boots" Ramp, of Coal Township, showed up early for oranges, apples and spring onions.
There are fewer faces to remember now anyway, and Janie talks about some from years ago, as far back as when farmers would hitch their horses nearby. It's why they don't come to town on weekdays any longer. But there's enough to return on Saturdays.
"It's a good life. Shamokin's been good to me," Janie says as she lines up boxes of tomatoes, working to fill the table before foot traffic picks up.
Good and cheap
It's nearing 8 a.m. and the farmers have been set up for more than an hour. Customers, not so much, but they'll come soon enough. Maybe it's the morning chill - 45 degrees - that's kept them inside.
"Shamokin don't wake up too fast this time of year," Jean Wehry says. "When it's summer they're out walking and will stop."
The Wehrys' stand is the first on Independence Street if you're coming from Market Street. Lloyd and Jean live in Shamokin. Their daughter stays on their farm in Leck Kill.
Lloyd says he's in town between 5 and 5:30 in the morning on Saturdays, sometimes earlier. They're in town Tuesdays and Thursdays when the weather cooperates. It's now Lloyd's only market stand, more a matter of convenience than prime location.
They sell "tons" of bananas and apples. They also have potatoes, cabbage and dandelion.
"Tomatoes are one of the best sellers. We have wonderful tomatoes," Jean says.
Soon they'll have homegrown lettuce, green onions and peas, and homegrown fruit closer to summertime. They sell eggs from Lloyd's nephew's farm. Jean sells her own baked goods.
Like Janie up the street, Lloyd has come to know his customers, several generations of them. His wife thinks it's the cheaper prices compared to grocery stores that keeps the market viable.
"I think that's what's bringing a lot of people to market," Jean says.
Market the market
Dave Delbo, of Elysburg, runs the aptly named Dave's Flowers in Ralpho Township. He brings potted plants, fresh-cut flowers and bouquets to the downtown each week.
Dave's been part of the farmers market about 30 years. He has the help of his wife, Alicia, and his children, Greg, 16, and Jess, 12. The kids have been at market since they were babies. Customers may remember them entertaining themselves in a playpen while their parents worked. Now they're making bouquets themselves and interacting with passers-by.
"They like when they get paid," Dave says of their desire to work Saturdays.
Easter tulips, hyacinths and spring bed flowers are among the in-season offerings.
This past winter was rough. At one point the cost of propane spiked, in turn spiking the cost to run his greenhouse. And then there was a shortage. He couldn't get any at one point in January. But he got by.
Dave says his market business peaked around 2000. It's been a steady decline since, down to about half of what he was doing at the start of the last decade. They stopped coming on weekdays. But he's optimistic.
"I think it's slowly rebuilding now," he says.
Part of the problem, he says, is "a lot of people don't know we're here."
So he started a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/shamokinfarmersmarket, in hopes of reaching customers new and old. He posts photos from his flower truck as well as some photos of the neighboring farmers.
He also wishes administrators in city hall would become more active in promoting the market. It's a positive event, something the city can be proud of, he said.
Dave noted a running theme amongst the farmers about the slowed market: population decline. But Shamokin isn't any less colorful, whether or not his tulips and roses and such are brightening the west side of Independence and Eighth streets.
"There's some funny characters," he says. "I think every town has a few."
It's all relative
The Stewarts are a father-son team, Bill Jr. and Bill III. Their stand is east of the Haupts', halfway up the next block of Independence Street.
Customers are already stopping by as they're unloading onions, watermelons and pineapples from a van and a Ford Explorer packed tightly with produce.
"How much are your lopes, bud?" dad calls out.
"Two dollars," son replies.
"Eight for a dollar."
Bill Jr. started coming to market six years back. His son, a high school senior at Lourdes Regional, took over the business before he leaves for college in the fall. He controls purchasing and storage, the most critical components. Vegetables like potatoes hold up well in storage, but buy too many flats of strawberries and he eats the cost of rotten fruit.
"He's doing better than I ever did," Bill Jr. says of his son, especially when it comes to careful purchasing.
With customers at the stand Saturday like Tony Kalinowski, of Shamokin, there's little worry of much going to waste. He snatched up eight flats of strawberries, six bunches of asparagus and eight pineapples.
"You're gonna make me run to the bank," he jokes with the Stewarts.
After that, he bought more. Much of it will be blended into smoothies for his family.
"I'm here every week," Kalinowski says. "You can't beat the price."
Bill III is using the profits to restore a 1987 Camaro, a 2004 4.8 liter engine and rear positraction among the upgrades. "It turned out to be a lot more expensive than I thought," he says.
When Bill III goes to college, Bill Jr. will take back the business. But there are twin 13-year-old brothers in waiting, he says.
Goodbye, for now
"And this is gonna be your last week," Carol Bobber, of Shamokin, says to Carl Raker. "OK, we're gonna miss you."
While the other farmers in market are winding up for the season, April is the month when Raker's Meats calls it quits. Carl shuts down the butcher shop of his operation and strictly farms in the Sunbury area. He'll be back in November, and none too soon for folks like Bobber.
The butcher's market stand is a truck, an umbrella and a makeshift display case. He stocks pork chops, ham slices, homemade bologna and smoked sausage and cheeses. There's frozen packs of ground beef available as well as beef sticks and jerky and other goods. It comes from the family farm.
The cold months are naturally his busiest as he's able to set up outdoors without worry of spoiling meat. A snowstorm one Saturday in February dumped inches of snow in the downtown, but Raker and a young nephew bundled up and stuck it out, dusting snow off the packaged ham loaves set on a display table.
Carl's been coming to market since 1971.
"Back in the '80s it was really booming," he says.
But he still has loyal customers like Bobber, who walks over from her home nearby on Commerce Street. Her two sisters come to market, too, he says.
"I'll see you around Thanksgiving time," she tells him as she walks off with freshly smoked sausage and a block of cheese.
Sisters Frona and Lonnie Yoder, of Winfield, set up next to Raker's Meats. They stay until around Thanksgiving, right when Raker's hits its stride. Their Stein Lane Wood Fired Bake Shop offers fresh fruit pies, tandy cakes, whoopie pies, sticky buns and cookies.
"Everything was baked yesterday," Frona says.
They also sell baskets woven by their parents.
The Yoders have been at the market about five years. They sell their goods at campgrounds, too.
They'd stay longer than the April-to-November season in downtown Shamokin, but as Frona says, "It's too cold for us to be out here in the winter."
For now it's spring, it's about 10 a.m. and foot traffic has hit a pace fast enough to keep the farmers on their toes, but just slow enough to enjoy the scene.