OPINION: The forgotten story of Sarnia’s market gardens

The Sarnia Farmers’ Market supplied residents with food from local market garden for 91 years, until the downtown site was destoyed by a tornado. The current Ontario Street market opened four months later. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Alexander

George Mathewson

If you’ve been to the Sarnia Farmers’ Market you might have met Frank Kap, a personable fellow with a link to an all-but-forgotten part of Sarnia’s past.

Kap’s father was a Dutch immigrant who opened a stall at the market more than 60 years ago, stocking it from a small farm plot on Errol Road East, about where Sweden Street is located today.

Kap, now 70, helped out his dad as a kid and on summer holidays, selling produce and fresh-cut flowers.

“Dad passed away in ‘94 and I was asked if I could continue the stand for a couple week,” he said. “I said I would and I’m still there.”

Sarnia is known as a petrochemical centre, and before that for shipping and lumber. But it was also once a preeminent producer of fruits and vegetables, a story that’s been lost beneath the subdivisions and parking lots.

In a short history written last year about Sarnia’s market gardens, Dean Hodgson describes how a band of rich, sandy soil between London Road and Lake Huron easily sustained the community from its earliest days.

Small-plot farmers had orchards of apples and peaches and pears and grew strawberries, raspberries and currants, along with tomatoes, sweet corn and pumpkins.

“These small garden farms, many only 5 – 10 acres in size, provided a good living for many families from the 1800s right into the 1950s,” he wrote.

In the early days, market gardeners went up and down the streets hawking their produce. But in 1861 town council felt a public square would be more convenient for farmers and residents alike.

The first market opened at Lochiel and Victoria streets. Growers would rise early and cart fresh produce to town on Wednesdays and Saturdays — as they do to this day.

The local soil proved so fertile that by 1907 an association of independent growers had formed to expand fruit and vegetable shipments to export markets, especially Northern Ontario.

The downtown market where Frank Kap’s dad got started was destroyed by the famous tornado of 1953, but its vendors quickly formed a co-operative and bought the current market site on Ontario Street. They were up and running four months later.

“My dad also had a piece of land on Murphy Road (at Michigan),” Kap recalled. “It was excellent soil and I remember picking tomatoes, putting them in 11-quart baskets and taking them to the Canada Steamship Lines in Point Edwards, where they’d ship them by boat to Toronto.”

After 154 years the Farmer’s Market is one of the city’s oldest institutions. And you’ll find Frank at “Kappie’s Korner,” often with his daughter and granddaughter, supplementing the maple syrup, honey and flowers coming from other producers with produce grown on his two acres at Telfer Road.

“This has been a real family thing for many, many years,” he said. “It’s not a huge farm but it keeps me busy. It’s a nice little retirement project.”