Once upon a time, Saint John City operated six individual markets: a fish market and dock on Water Street, a collection of sheds on Market Street known as the Country Market, Sydney Market catering to Lowe Cove, a Hay Market on King Street, and a cattle market in King Square. As the city grew and its influence spread, it became clear that the multitude of markets was unnecessary, which led to a movement towards centralization.
The first market building of Saint John was erected in 1830 at Market Square, near the Market Slip. Constructed from wood, it unfortunately burned down in 1837. The city decided to reconstruct it in 1839 using brick, but once again, it was destroyed in 1841.
The market, while in operation, served many purposes: the basement’s lower half functioned as a general store, the ground level accessed from King Street hosted the actual market, and the top floor accommodated courtrooms and council chambers. In 1874, the city formed a Market Committee to consider proposals for a new market building. By the end of the year, the committee decided to move forward with plans for a new market.
The unique design of the market was selected through a competition among local architects and was constructed by the city’s talented artisans. On December 16, 1874, the Market Committee presented two prizes for the best Market design. The top spot, which came with a $200 reward, went to Messrs. McKean and Fairweather, while D.E. Dunham won the second place with a $100 reward. Mr. W.P. Clark and Mr. W.M. Smith earned a $50 premium for their plan. The Saint John City Market on Charlotte Street was officially inaugurated in 1876.
In the 1800s, Saint John was a global leader in shipbuilding. Fittingly, the City Market’s roof is shaped like an upside-down ship’s keel. The handcrafted timbers and precise dove-tailed joints, which have survived over a century, reflect the builders’ skill and craftsmanship. The market building was lucky to emerge unscathed from the Great Fire of 1877. Some businesses within the market have remained in operation for over a century. Presently, the market is thriving and more productive than ever in its history.
Since its inauguration in 1876, the Saint John City Market has weathered various hardships, including the devastating Great Fire of 1877 that consumed much of the surrounding city a year after its opening, and the urban renewal of the 20th century that built a new city right outside its iron gates.
Occupying an entire city block, the Market stretches from the “head of the Market” on Charlotte Street, gradually declining to the entrance on Germain Street, a full 10 feet below. The same ornate wrought iron gates, hanging at both entrances, have been closing at the end of each business day since 1880. Their exquisite design stands as a tribute to the skill and creativity of the local blacksmith who forged them.
The Saint John City Market, the oldest farmer’s market in Canada with uninterrupted operation, stands as the historical heart of a rejuvenated city center.
The Royal Charter that founded the City of Saint John in 1785 incorporated stipulations for running public markets, designating the Mayor as the Market Clerk endowed with the power to license farmers, artisans, and others to vend their products. Each license, stamped with the Mayor’s seal, required a fee, which supplemented the Mayor’s remuneration during that period.
Prominently displayed above the entrance on Germain Street is the City of Saint John’s Crest. Serving as the city’s official emblem, its symbols bear testimony to a rich history anchored in fishing, forestry, shipping, and industry – the very pillars of strength that our ancestors relied on, and which remain our strengths even today.
Originally, the City Market fell under the jurisdiction of the “Pie Powder Court.” This court regulated all commercial transactions within the Market and was helmed by the Market Clerk, who had the authority to impose fines, banish traders, and set behavioral rules within the marketplace. Reports from the market record fines for insufficient weights, substandard produce, and breaches of market regulations.
The phrase Pie Powder originates from the Norman French “Piepoudre,” implying common vendors and salesmen who migrated from one market to another. Their “dusty feet” (pieds poudre) came from their nomadic lifestyle. Today, the role of the “Pie Powder Court” has been taken over by provincial government agencies. The Market Clerk and staff persist in supervising the daily activities of the market and report to the Saint John City Council via the Market Committee.
The enduring tradition of ringing the Market Bell each morning and evening at the City Market symbolizes the commencement and end of the day’s trade. The Deputy Market Clerk, who oversees daily operations, continues to maintain this tradition.
In recent years, the market has seen a multitude of upgrades and enhancements, including the laying of a new concrete floor, the creation of glass-encased dining and storage areas along North and South Market Streets, an indoor subterranean link to Brunswick Square, an upgraded heating system, and the refurbishment of stalls. These restoration efforts were enabled through funding from the City of Saint John, Parks Canada, and the New Brunswick Government. Today, the City Market reflects the typically relaxed lifestyle of its local inhabitants and is honoured as a National Historic Site.
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