The breakfast sandwich alone is worth the drive to Horton Farmers’ Market on Manitoba Street in downtown St. Thomas.
Freshly made with sausage or peameal bacon, farm fresh eggs and cheddar cheese, and handmade English muffins, the Horton breakfast sandwich is simple, local and satisfying – for $5 you also get a drink.
Tricia Herbert, the general manager of Farmgate Markets Deli and Fresh Meats, provides the meat and sources the other sandwich ingredients. She says that up to 175 of these sandwiches get devoured on Saturday and though they sell them at their larger deli at 19 Elgin Street in St. Thomas all week, there is a special sauce found only at Horton. “Something is different here with the breakfast sandwich,” says Herbert. “I call it market love. There are no fillers or by-products in the meat and we know where the meat comes from. Sandy Lyle, Farmgate’s owner, raises the hogs on Fingal Line. They leave his farm on Friday to go to the Conestoga Abattoir and are in our case on Monday.”
I ask Shawn Devree, Horton’s market manager, what’s new this season and she quickly points to the fresh fish vendor. Derek Weaver and his son Brody had brought 80 packs of perch and 20 of pickerel and were down to their last package of perch at 10 a.m. They enjoy a quick turnaround from hook to freezer pack. “We buy it back off our commercial processor in Leamington,” says Derek Weaver, a fisherman with Cosley Brothers in Port Stanley. “Perch is our biggest seller because it is a less fatty fish and is abundant again in Lake Erie – better than it was 20 years ago.”
Some vendors have made Horton a family affair. Cathy and Gary McGregor-Smith of McSmith’s Farm say they are “back-to-the-land” types who began selling at Horton not long after they were first married and freshly-minted organic farmers in St. Thomas. Almost thirty years later they are highly respected organic farming leaders, sell 4,500 meat chickens annually (sold out until November 2013), have 1,000 laying hens and raise all their own organic chicken feed. McSmith’s organic produce is some of the tastiest in the province, and includes heirloom varieties.
Their daughter Janis and her husband Mark Harris also farm. They sell cut flowers and pastured organic pork. Their grandsons Cameron, three, and Nathan, seven months, are market veterans. “Cameron has been at Horton every Saturday of his life except the day he was born,” says Cathy McGregor-Smith. Horton is that kind of market – many customers shopped here with their grandparents and now bring their children.
The market was founded in 1878, and is named for Ed Horton, a former mayor of St. Thomas who donated land for the market site. For a century the market played a pivotal role in community life and was a hub for regional bounty – both from land and lake.
But the market declined in the 1980s. Resellers (vendors who source products from terminals, not fields) moved in and crowded out the farmers and producers – the kiss of death for a market. Most of the producers left and the market dwindled to three vendors.
In 2006, Horton closed temporarily to renovate the outdoor pavilion and re-write the rules. By July that year, Horton re-opened as a producer-based market once again, the pride of Elgin County.
Today the permanent market building is renovated and two of the outdoor pavilions are restored. Vendors like Joy Westelaken of West Lorne gave Horton a second shot. “It’s one of my favourite markets,” she says. “The building and tables are permanent, the access is easy and the vendors and customers are always protected from the weather.”
On Saturday morning, from 8A.M. until noon the market hops with over thirty-five vendors selling meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, herbs, soaps and lotions, honey, maple syrup, baked goods, crafts, ethnic food and a fine selection of flowers and plants. Just get there early because vendors do sell out.
MARY ANN COLIHAN is a local food advocate, lover of heirloom varieties of tomatoes and has co-authored a best practices book titled: Sharing the Harvest: How to Build Farmers’ Markets and How Farmers’ Markets Build Community. She managed the start-up of Horton in 2006 and the outdoor farmers’ market at Covent Garden in 1999.