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Barr Street Market full of history

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

The Barr Street Market is one of the oldest and best-known features of downtown Fort Wayne. Although it has been changed many times over the 147 years since it opened, it remains a popular seasonal outdoor market.

Located between the Historical Museum at 302 East Berry St. and Washington Boulevard, the market is undergoing yet another change in its appearance. The new Barr Street Market will be a much-widened brick and concrete plaza shaded by new trees. A water fountain will be located by Wayne Street. Thanks to the Waterfield Mortgage Co., 333 E. Washington Blvd., the old National Mill building on the eastern edge of the market will be remodeled as an office space with a restored 19th-century exterior.

The Barr Street Market Association, which has operated the market since 1966, will continue to bring together craft, fruit and vegetable dealers in the fair- weather months, with retail traffic perhaps buoyed by current renovations.

The man for whom the street and its market were named was John T. Barr, a Baltimore, Md., merchant. Although little is known about John Barr, he and his partner, John McCorkle, of Piqua, Ohio, were the original proprietors of Fort Wayne. In 1823, Barr and McCorkle came by canoe to the newly opened government land office in the fort, which had been abandoned by the military in 1819. On Oct. 23, they paid $26 per acre for the area that was to become the center of the city of Fort Wayne. The two men immediately laid out the plat (or street grid) of 118 lots and nine streets, with a public square, thus the town of Fort Wayne actually was born on Oct. 23, 1823.

McCorkle died 10 years later and Barr fell victim to the national financial panic of 1837, forcing him to mortgage his western lands. It was Samuel Hanna who eventually assumed most of Barr's Fort Wayne properties, but the eastern-most street of the original town plat was given Barr's name in his honor.

The land for the market was donated in 1837 by Hanna, Fort Wayne's most famous pioneer. Hanna offered the lots for the market from his large, newly acquired expanse of land, known as "Hanna's Addition" (which is much of downtown Fort Wayne today). By this grant, he looked forward to the time when Fort Wayne would be incorporated as a city, the center of which he wanted to be sure would be located on his land. Based on the design of the Philadelphia Market, the Barr Street Market was quickly established, with its center a modest frame building measuring 30 by 60 feet. Farmers could rent stalls for $5 per year.

The need for a specified central market area was evidence that the town was rapidly growing in population and that surpluses were being produced by the pioneer farmers of the region. The appearance of the market also serves as a reminder of how closely the people of early Fort Wayne depended on the Allen County countryside for their provisions.

Throughout much of the 19th century, there were no grocery stores or shipments of produce from other parts of the country. The meat, bread, dairy goods and many vegetables consumed by Fort Wayne residents were largely the products of their country neighbors. The Barr Street market was a central feature for the provisioning of Fort Wayne as a growing trade and industrial settlement.

By 1852, the requirements of both the city government, which operated the Barr Street Market until 1966, and the market itself called for larger facilities. At first, the contract for a new market building was to be let to James Humphrey and his partner, John Brown (the owner and builder of the Canal House). The citizens passed a special tax levy for the job, but City Council tried to move the whole project to another site.

A storm of protest forced Council to reconsider, and, in 1855, a new contract was given to Humphrey and his new partner, Henry Nierman. A new market house (with two city government offices upstairs) was built at a cost of $2,800.

This brick building, which was located partly in Barr Street itself, was a two story, rectangular structure: a few covered stalls, rented at $40 per year, extended north and south. Otherwise undistinguished, the building was notable for its squat square tower topped by an onion-shaped cupola. The outdoor part of the market was not elaborate. The stalls were randomly placed between the many short trees that defined the market area. Horse-drawn carts and wagons by the dozen were backed into the tree line where the shopping took place, while the animals stood in the unpaved street. Market Masters were named by the city to operate the market. Among them was Peter Kiser, one of the more interesting characters of mid-19th-century Fort Wayne.

Peter Kiser was physically impressive, weighing more than 300 pounds and standing well over six feet tall. Widely known around town, he was a frequent participant in gala parades, usually found striding proudly along the caravan route carrying his magnificent scrapbook for all to see, filled with memorabilia of Fort Wayne's past, from postage stamps and canal bonds to calling cards and campaign ribbons.

Born in Ohio to German parents, Kiser came to Fort Wayne as trader in 1822, but did not settle here until 1832. He then established the city's first butcher shop, and came to hold considerable political power, despite the fact that he could neither read nor write. In 1847, he was elected to the state legislature. During this term, and again in 1867, Kiser was an aggressive figure in the push to develop free public schools in Indiana. Twice, in 1849 and 1852, he served as a City Councilman.

Toasted as a local dignitary at the great canal opening in 1843 (he brought the oxen for the barbecue), Kiser also served as a member of one of the city's first volunteer fire departments, called the "Anthony Waynes," and he was the standard bearer of the local militia, the "Wayne Guards," formed in 1841. He was, in addition, an eloquent opponent of the Temperance Movement, at one time calling upon its local leaders "to be themselves temperate in all matters and not denounce their fellow man so intemperately."

Under such masters as Peter Kiser, the market flourished throughout the second half of the 19th Century, making possible important additional income for area farmers and local truck gardeners.

In 1892, when Fort Wayne's first real city hall (today's Historical Museum) was about to be erected, the old market house was torn down. In 1910, at a cost of $20,000, the outdoor market was given its greatest embellishment when it was covered with concrete pavilions joining triumphal arches between the City Hall and Washington Boulevard. A great pointed double- gothic arch made of iron was erected over Wayne Street, connecting the two market pavilions. In the first decades of the 20th century, the market saw its best years. It was operated day and night, six days a week, under the supervision of the market master. There were 120 stalls rented at $15 to $20 per year, with a rental of 25 cents per stall during the nighttime hours. According to one recollection, the market in the late 1920s drew thousands of customers each day.

As with the early market houses, City Hall also became very much a part of the Barr Street Market complex, though mainly by virtue of its proximity. The city police and ambulance service that operated out of the back doors of the City Hall became a permanent fixture of the northern end of the market, giving the area a rather special flavor. Police, especially in the summer, often were found taking their ease at the tables and chairs of that end of the market.

The arrival of the full patrol wagon at the police station or the detention of a rowdy always made for an interesting diversion from ordinary market business. Less appetizingly, the bloodied stretchers of the ambulance service were dutifully scrubbed at the convenient catch basin at the end of the market near the meat and dairy stalls.

By the 1950s, with the growth of supermarkets and the first outlying shopping centers, business at Barr Street market began to decline sharply. The pavilion nearest to City Hall was razed in 1957 to make room for parking, and in the next year the Wayne to Washington Street pavilion was destroyed, leaving only a few trees and the concrete walkway where once thousands of customers shopped daily. The market remained idle for almost a decade, until 1966, when the Barr Street Market Association was formed to revitalize outdoor trade in the center of downtown. Although the market today is much smaller than it was in its heyday, and the center of city government has shifted from Barr Street to Main Street, the recent renovation of City Hall as a museum and the current reconstruction of the market area promises to bring yet more activity to the site of one of the city's oldest institutions.

--Nov. 29, 1993