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CHAPTER 3 Municipal Housekeepers and the High Cost of Living The Establishment of Gardening Programs and Farmers Markets by Grand Rapids Women’s Clubs in the Early Twentieth Century jayson otto On March 21, 1917, Eva McCall Hamilton was quoted on the front page of the Grand Rapids Herald: “The retail market will become an institution in Grand Rapids. The turning over of vacant city lots to householders is also a splendid idea. These things show the spirit of Grand Rapids.” Hamilton, who would go on to be the first female senator in Michigan, was reveling in her victory won the previous evening at Grand Rapids City Hall. That night she had used her influence as a member of the mayor-appointed High Cost of Living Commission to overcome a filibuster blocking a $2,000 appropriation for the development of the first public retail market in Grand Rapids, Michigan.1 At the same meeting, she helped push through a resolution that gave the city comptroller power to distribute over three hundred vacant lots in the city to individuals, families, or other groups of community members wanting to grow their own food (Grand Rapids Press [GRP], 20 March 1917, 5). Public retail markets, which are what we would now consider “farmers markets,” became an institution in Grand Rapids through the work of wealthy, 22 introduction and historic al antecedents upper- and middle-class women concerned with the living conditions of the working classes. By 1922, civic work had led to three city-operated markets located in working-class, immigrant neighborhoods. These markets were public services that alleviated the high cost of living caused by massive inflation , stagnant wages, and ultimately the war in Europe.2 They were not warmly received by local grocers, however. Retail and wholesale grocers fought the idea of retail farmers markets for at least twenty years in Grand Rapids, protecting their near monopoly of fresh produce, which was supported through municipal ordinances. Prominent Grand Rapids women like Hamilton were able to overcome the domination of grocers when they were given official space in local politics as consultants for issues of social welfare. Their interest in retail markets and public gardening programs stemmed from a general concern for “municipal housekeeping,” an idea heavily promoted across the country by progressive female reformers such as Reverend Caroline Bartlett Crane of Kalamazoo, Michigan (Davis 2006; Rynbrandt 1997). She and other educated female leaders urged all women to actively work with local governments to promote health, cleanliness, and all things domestic. In Grand Rapids, one of their first and most successful campaigns was a school and home gardening program among children. Gardening programs in Grand Rapids were widely supported through public and private collaborations, forging strong relationships between local business owners and politicians and groups such as the Ladies Literary Club. These associations led to female appointments on official working groups in the local government that ultimately influenced the establishment of the first retail farmers markets in Grand Rapids. Their endeavors are an early example of work around food production that reinforced the female social role while also politically empowering women. Such food-based social movements still tend to be gendered (Delind and Ferguson 1999), and, as Nevin Cohen and Katinka Wijsman have shown in chapter 13 with New York community gardens, female political empowerment is still an important ancillary to the explicit benefits of urban agriculture. Unlike public gardening programs that enjoyed universal support, the public retail markets of Grand Rapids were contested public services whereby politically active women placed responsibility for feeding the city solely on Municipal Housekeepers and the High Cost of Living 23 the local government. City officials were reluctant to appropriate funds for a public service that was considered a detriment to local business owners. Nevertheless, the special interests of grocers were eventually eclipsed when club women were appointed by the mayor to the city’s High Cost of Living Commission. Drawing from the momentum created through their garden programs and backed by reports from other cities, these women argued that Grand Rapids should operate retail markets as a way to contribute to wartime food production and fight the high cost of living. After an experimental period of a few years, the city purchased and developed permanent sites for the markets and hired a city employee to manage them. This chapter explores the relationship between early public gardening programs and farmers markets in Grand Rapids during the first quarter of the twentieth century and also contributes to...


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