Issue: Fall/Winter 2020

Original Farmer's Market

For 86 years, Angelenos have flocked to the corner of 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue for a taste of authentic Los Angeles. From its humble beginnings as an empty oil field where local farmers sold produce from the back of their trucks, the Original Farmers Market has become a beloved cornerstone of L.A.’s food culture, where locals, tourists, and celebrities flock to dine and shop in the open air.

Still, in spite of its popularity, visitors and many residents aren’t aware of how deeply imbedded the market and its owner, A. F. Gilmore Company, is in the history of Los Angeles.

After winning a draw of straws with his business partner, Arthur Gilmore set about establishing his dairy farm on 256 acres of land that had been part of the Rancho LaBrea land grant that includes what is now the Farmers Market, Television City and The Grove shopping complex. Nestled on these grounds, hidden yet carefully preserved is the original historic rancho adobe.

It’s said that it was while drilling for water for his herd of dairy cows, Gilmore struck oil.  So although Gilmore got the short straw and what was viewed as the less desirable land than their original farm in Compton, Gilmore got the better end of the deal when oil was discovered there in 1906. Gilmore changed his business from milk to oil and, and as Southern California’s car culture grew, Gilmore Oil and its “flying” lion logo quickly became an icon across the region.

The modern Farmers Market has a reproduction
of a Gilmore Oil gas station to honor
the Market's origins.
In the 1930s new regulations required capping the oil field in the developing Fairfax neighborhood and Arthur’s son, Earl, now president of the company, and the family fortune growing embarked upon another venture building  Gilmore Stadium, an 18,000 seat multisport stadium that hosted auto racing, football and more.

Still, part of the property sat vacant until two entrepreneurs, Fred Beck and Roger Dahlhjelm, approached E.B. Gilmore with an idea to create a village square where farmers and artisans could come together and people could buy their wares directly.

On July 14th, 1934, chalk lines were drawn in the field at 3rd and Fairfax and 12 farmers and six other vendors parked their trucks to sell their goods. Despite it being the height of the Great Depression, it was an instant success. The Farmers Market’s quick popularity was due to the significant percentage of Angelenos who came from other parts of the country. Many of these newcomers came from the Midwest with agrarian backgrounds and buying direct from farm stands resonated with them. Today, even with many weekly farmers markets around L.A., the Original Farmers Market is the granddaddy of them all and has open for business every day (except for Thanksgiving and Christmas) since this first day of business in July 1934.

The origin of Farmers Market: shopping
for fresh produce back in the day.
Meanwhile with the market flourishing and oil still pumping, Eric Gilmore set about building another 13,000 seat sports venue, Gilmore Field, which was the home to the Hollywood Stars minor league baseball team, which opened in 1939. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, the Stars moved to Salt Lake City, spelling the end for Gilmore Field.

It was clear that the Farmers Market was here to stay, and with permanent market stalls and shops built, the market we know today began to take shape. It was around this time that Blanche Magee opened her sandwich shop at the Market. Magee was probably the most influential of the Market’s early vendors. She already had a stall at Downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market, but one day she visited acquaintances at the Farmers Market and some of her pals suggested she should open a sandwich shop there too.  Serving food at the market required tables, chairs and the all-important guest amenity, bathrooms and LA’s first outdoor food court was born.

Magee’s influence wasn’t just in the form of infrastructure, she’s also responsible for a simple culinary innovation. At the Market, Magee ran a restaurant and a nut stand. Rather than selling bags of just almonds or peanuts, she’s credited with creating the concept of mixed nuts. Magee’s restaurant and nut stand are still mainstays of the Farmers Market and are the oldest tenants.

At the Farmers Market, the cross section of L.A. cuisine, from sushi to empanadas, allows diners to pick and choose their culinary preferences. Aside from the food court variety, there’s a store that just sells stickers, others that have walls of hot sauce, spices, toys and sports memorabilia, and even a bakery just for dogs.

Generations of locals swear the produce, meats, seafood, poultry are the best in town.

Bob Tusquellas, owner of Bob's Coffee and Donuts
Many vendors have longtime family ties to the Farmers Market. “My dad opened a meat market there in 1949 and I started working for my dad when I was 11 years old,” says Bob Tusquellas, owner of Bob’s Coffee and Donuts. Tusquellas first opened a seafood market in 1966 at the Market, and then took over the donut stand in 1970.

It’s not just the business owners who have familial connections to the market. “There are people who I’ve waited on their grandparents and now I’m waiting on them and their kids,” says Scott Bennett, owner of Bennett’s Ice Cream, which was first opened by his uncle in 1963. People appreciate the consistency of the Farmers Market. And although some shops come and go, there’s a feeling of continuity and authenticity. “It isn’t something built to look like it’s old,” says Tusquellas.

Even in the early days, the Market’s low key charm is what attracted customers. According to Filomena D’Amore, owner of Patsy D’Amore’s Pizza, her father opened his pizzeria in 1949 “because he was from Italy and the Farmers Market seemed very European.”

The new sign still reflects
the Market's vintage style
Unsurprisingly, the Farmers Market’s casual environment, as well as its convenient location next to CBS’ Television City studios, made it a place celebrities stopped by. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin would frequently eat at Patsy’s, and the multitalented Danny Kaye would frequent the butcher shop at the Market. “He’d order something and cut it himself.” In 1953, an up and coming Marilyn Monroe was named the market’s “Miss Cheesecake.” by Michael Gaszynski, a Polish ex-diplomat who ran a cheesecake shop in the market. Other celebrity clients have been a bit more reserved. Actor Henry Morgan would sneak in the back to grab an ice cream cone, and Cher was known to hang out at the Market’s upstairs patio while filming at CBS. Bennett recalls one rainy day at the market when he wasn’t expecting to do too much business, but then John Malkovich walked up to order a Coke. “He had just made Dangerous Liasons and I thought it was incredible,” says Bennett, adding “I said ‘By the way, I really like your work.’ He took a sip, raised a cup and said ‘And I appreciate yours.’”

Don and Lily Kipper, owners of Kip's Toyland,
the oldest toy store in Los Angeles
The Farmers Market is currently managing through the COVID-19 pandemic. The Market’s familiar outdoor patio dining and ample space permits outdoor dining and safe distancing. Shops and stands are open for business and following guidelines.

Born out of the Great Depression, , the Farmers Market has had its share of ups and downs, but it will always be a place where locals, tourists, and celebrities can all stand shoulder to shoulder, and will be again when we can stand closer than six feet apart. If there’s any place that can be called the Great Equalizer, it’s the Original Farmers Market. Like L.A., it’s been there for us through thick and thin, and one of our city’s greatest treasures.