Originally created 06/30/03

Savannah celebrates 50 copious years in produce



SAVANNAH, Ga. - By midnight, most folks in the early to mid-1900s would have turned out the lights and fallen fast asleep.

But not Perry Hampton Kessler and his father.

The Kesslers, from Effingham County, would turn on the kerosene lamp, dress, crank up the old Model T truck and head for the farmers market in Savannah.

Today, Perry Kessler, 82, continues that tradition, but gets up a little later - 5 a.m.

On Saturday, he was among the farmers marking the 50th anniversary of the Savannah State Farmers Market.

Each week, Mr. Kessler and others offer produce grown on their farms. For the celebration, they joined other vendors who had tables of birdhouses, wooden toys and other crafts. There were square dancers and pie- and watermelon-eating contests, too.

In the middle of it all were young entrepreneurs Tracey Brooks and sisters Sharnika and Sharnay Green. All between the ages of 11 and 13, they set up a table to sell their bead necklaces.

Nearby, Mr. Kessler sold his produce and talked about his memories of bringing vegetables to market.

"There would be times the fog would be so heavy in the early mornings," he said. "Those were the times that I would walk ahead with a lantern while my daddy drove the truck so he wouldn't run into a tree or something with our load."

Even when a hurricane and drought came in the early '50s and Mr. Kessler worked a job at Union Camp, he continued his first love of farming.

"Things had gotten hard for the farmers. It was pitiful then as it is now," Mr. Kessler said.

Other farmers had memories of those early days, too.

Lou Dean Hinely, 66, has been farming and participating in the open-air venue all his life. He grows the tomatoes that have been a family tradition for nearly 200 years.

Tarver Hodges, of Springfield, recalled nights spent sleeping on the market's concrete slabs when it first opened in 1953.

"Back then, we'd load up the truck and get here late at night. Then we'd sleep here," Mr. Hodges said. "You see, there were a lot of small stores. ... They would start coming about 5 or 6 in the morning, and you needed to be ready."

Lamar Roberts, 74, from Bryan County, has worked the land since 1946. After World War II, Mr. Roberts took advantage of the GI Bill and went to a farming school in Pembroke to improve what he already knew.

"My mind isn't as good as it was, and I don't try to fight it," Mr. Roberts said as he talked about the market.

But he does know one thing: "I was here when it opened."

Tom Linder, the agriculture commissioner, gave a speech. He promised the market would get bigger, buyers were supposed to move in, and a helicopter was supposed to carry the produce from the fields to market.

Although some farmers say the market hasn't lived up to its potential, one thing that has grown is Kesslers Restaurant. A market fixture from the beginning, it provides lunch for the farmers and anyone else seeking a home-cooked meal.

"We use as much of the fresh vegetables as possible," said owner Rita Douglas.

And in the kitchen is "Miss Willie" - Whilhelmeina Washington - an employee of Kesslers since it was a part of the farmers market in downtown Savannah.

"I was a little girl 9 or 10 years old. I was shelling peas outside at the farmers market," said Ms. Washington. "Mr. Vernon Kessler took me in the kitchen, stood me on a box and showed me how to wash dishes and cook."

She took a break from working when she started having her 16 children.

"I don't have time to bother them people out there. In fact, I have to get back to my dishes," she said, instead of commenting about the changes she's seen.

While sometimes it might be a little slow, Vicky Sykes, the market manager, sees a brighter future ahead.

"We have so many new people here," she said.

Mary Simmons has visited the market for at least 10 years.

"Every time they open, I come to see what's here. I gotta have my fresh vegetables," she said.

On Saturday many newcomers were there, too.

"This is my first time to a market like this," said Willie Mae Trisby, 72, who moved to Savannah from New York.

"I didn't know this was going on today. I just came to get some greens. But now I've got Vidalia onions, stringbeans, had a little entertainment and a snack. I'm doing all right."