As the scents of cedar trees, mistletoe, and yaupon wafted through the air, throngs of yuletide shoppers milled around the outside of the blocklong steel-and-stone City Market, bounded by Brewer, Market, and Tazewell streets and Monticello Avenue.
“There were Christmas trees lining the streets on both sides from City Hall down to Charlotte Street,” said Thelma Wadley, remembering how the marketplace was the center of Christmas activity years ago.
“It was the prettiest thing you ever saw,” she said. “It was just like a forest. You could buy the prettiest trees you needed for 50 cents, 75 cents. A dollar was a good price for a tree.”
In those days, Ms. Wadley and her mother were at the center of all that activity. They sold fruit and vegetables from a market stall. Today, Ms. Wadley sells fresh produce across the street from where the market stood until 25 years ago. J.C. Penney now stands in the market’s stead on Monticello Avenue.
“It looks very bare to me today, said Janet F. Taylor, a 76-year-old Norfolk native whose father, Walter H. Taylor, was director of public works when the City Market was built in 1923.
“It used to have Christmas trees and all kinds of greenery on the outside that people sold,” she said. Now, “it looks strictly commercial and the market was not. It had a homey touch. . . . Now, it doesn’t have any character. . . . That great big garage has no character, you know.”
When the market flourished, farmers from surrounding Virginia and North Carolina counties flocked to the market to sell their goods at indoor and outdoor stalls. Mennonite men in black felt hats and preacher’s coats and women in cotton dresses, white aprons, and white caps sold dairy products, homemade pastries, preserves, and fresh produce.
Shoppers could buy cashews and peanuts roasted by vendors who cut tiny crosses in the chestnuts outer shells before placing them in a roasting machine in their push carts.
“The aroma was just out of this world,” Mrs. Taylor said. “It was divine.”
Sidewalk wreath makers weaved trailing cedar sprigs, holly, and pine comes into Christmas wares to the tune of Christmas carols sung by Salvation Army volunteers.
And the noisy streetside bustle was interspersed with holiday greetings between friends and acquaintances who sometimes exchanged kisses and hugs.
The City Market cost $500,000 to build in 1923. It was torn down in 1955 amid public furor to make way for the Maritime Towers and a parking garage.
“It was one of the most beautiful architectural monuments in the South” Mrs. Taylor said. “The (stone) carvings around the top of the market were simply lovely. They were carvings of what was sold there like lamb, cow, and pig.”
A June 1937 article in The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot described the market’s interior:
“The walls are like battlements pierced with windows, and the wings, being a story lower than the main building, permit the entire interior to be flooded with light,” it read. “Sanitation and cleanliness are watchwords. The stalls border long, wide walks that extend the entire length of the market like avenues, with other walks like cross streets.”
Meats, seafood, dairy products, baked goods, and farm produce each occupied their own section of the market. Norfolkians of all classes and races rubbed elbows as they bought groceries from their favorite vendors. Talk about the family, business, and holiday plans ensued as produce was weighed on hanging scales and plopped into customers’ baskets and bags.
“You could get things there you couldn’t get anywhere else,” said Isabella B. Walker. “I used to love to go there. It was something fascinating. It (produce) was real. It wasn’t wrapped up.”
Carroll H. Walker, a Norfolk historian and photographer, remembered the market sellers.
“The minute you stopped to look at something,” he recalled, “they’d come over to you and say, ‘What can I help you with?’ Everything was different then. That was the center of Norfolk.”
Former Governor Colgate W. Darden, Jr. said: “There were a good many people who went down there and bought flowers. That was quite an undertaking.”
Mabel N. Durkee’s mother-in-law, Hallie P. Durkee, ran a florist stall in the market. Along with holly, poinsettia, and other Christmas greens, roses and carnations also were sold.
“There were Christmas parties and Christmas dances,” she said. “There was an awful lot of corsage work around Christmas.”
Pearl O.C. Martin is another who sold goods at the market.
“You could get all kinds of cakes, puddings, and pies,” she said. “I remember people baking sweet potatoes. At Christmastime, people wanted more things. They bought more because it was a holiday. I used to sell wreaths, holly, cedar, and pine. The market was in its bloom in those days. You could get anything you wanted.”
When the market closed, it broke Mrs. Martin’s heart.
“I just hung around from corner to corner,” she said. “This is all I’ve ever done is farm and sell produce. I started out with my mother. I didn’t want to go to college.”
Now, her stand is beside Penney’s.
“I been working down here 35 years,” she said, rearranging the vegetables with wrinkled hands. “We did more business then than we’re doing now. All through those years, I worked Monday to Saturday. Now, I just work Friday and Saturday.
“I have regular customers. Some of them came to my mother when she was working down here years ago. . . . I guess they’ll drag me away when I’m dead.”
(This piece was first published in The Virginian-Pilot on Wednesday, December 24, 1980.)
Week Before Christmas
It’s the week before Christmas, and all through the market,
You drive your new car with no place to park it.
The sidewalks are crowded – folks all excited;
Some of them merry – and some of them “lighted.”
Christmas trees, holly wreaths, seen everywhere,
Cedar and mistletoe get in your hair.
But inside the markethouse, all is serene.
And there the best foodstuffs you’ve ever seen.
The stalls are piled high with confections and fruit,
With every known vegetable, all tastes to suit.
There are apples and coconuts, grapes and tomatoes,
Cauliflower, kumquats, bananas galore.
Grapefruit, tangerines, sweet to the core;
Mushrooms, honeydews, lettuce, and greens,
Celery, cucumbers, squashes, and beans.
The geese and the turkeys can wait till next week;
Right now it is ham and spiced beef that we seek.
We ordered some oysters to ship to our friends
And a quart for ourselves, which the fish dealer sends.
Then down Brewer Street where the country cars stand
Just crammed with good things, the best in the land.
Fresh country ground sausage that melts in your mouth
Not found anywhere except in the South;
Hominy, honey, scrapple, and cheese,
You’d search a long time to find such as these.
Eggs are expensive – forty a dozen,
But we must serve eggnog to nephew and cousin.
We empty our purse in a very short time
And feet very lucky to go home with a dime –
But the Salvation Army girl stands in our way
And we drop in our dime and call it a day!
It’s the week before Christmas, and what do we care?
The children are happy and our cupboards not bare
(This poem by Stella A. Upshur was first published in The Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch in 1931.)