2010-09-03 / Business

The State Farmer’s Market moves

Story and Photos by Julia Rogers Hook

Sherri Liles and Donna Spires wave good–bye to the old farmer’s market on Bluff Road. Sherri Liles and Donna Spires wave good–bye to the old farmer’s market on Bluff Road. Anyone driving into the gates of the State Farmer’s Market Friday August 27 knew immediately something was different. Gone were the sounds of trucks revving their motors and workers yelling instructions as they loaded and unloaded fruit and vegetables from across the country and as far away Mexico and Chile.

The local farmers were no longer proudly strutting up and down in front of their stalls where they parked their pick–up trucks filled with fresh squash, cucumbers, watermelons, and cantaloupes calling to potential buyers to peruse their wares and take home some locally grown vegetables or fruit.

Orange cones redirected traffic, and signs announced the businesses were closed. Stalls stood empty, and vehicles were loaded up with materials that had been in the same files and cabinets for decades.

Clay Spires and Marty Hook take a break on the empty shelves at Bluff Road. Clay Spires and Marty Hook take a break on the empty shelves at Bluff Road. It was the end of an era. After more than 50 years, the S.C. State Farmer’s Market was moving.

There was an eerie stillness. There was an air mixed with resignation and anticipation as people carried boxes filled with 50–plus years of belongings to their cars and hugged one another farewell.

“See you over at the new place,” one woman called to her co–worker.

“If I can find it,” the other woman yelled back laughing.

Walking onto the platform that housed two of the oldest wholesale businesses on the market, there was no produce beautifully displayed and ready for inspection at either Senn Brothers Produce or V.B. Hook Inc. The only people around were carrying things to trucks to be moved to the new location. The offices were gutted and, where desks and busy phones had been, there was only empty space and hanging wires.

Randy Frierson, Rocky Thomas, Ryan Thomas, Addy Jo Thomas, and Timmy Thomas move furniture into facilities at the new farmer’s market on HWY 321. Randy Frierson, Rocky Thomas, Ryan Thomas, Addy Jo Thomas, and Timmy Thomas move furniture into facilities at the new farmer’s market on HWY 321. “It’s surreal,” said Marty Hook, president of V.B. Hook whose grandfather started the business more than half a century ago at a little spot on Assembly Street. “I don’t think it really hit me until the last truck pulled out of here with the last load of produce.”

The University of South Carolina bought the space in 2001, and the produce companies and local farmers are all moving to a new site located on U.S. HWY 321 within 1.5 miles of both I–77 and I–26. The 174–acre site will include everything from an amphitheater to an RV parking lot, developers said. With both Lexington and Richland Counties vying over where the new market would go, even after Lexington won the bidding war, heavy rains and inclement weather postponed the proposed June opening of the new market. Even though the site is still under construction, that hot Friday in August was finally moving day.

The first State Farmers’ Market moved from Assembly Street to Bluff Road in 1951. Addie Jo Thomas and Charles “Bubba” Senn, are the only two people still employed who have worked at all three locations of the Farmer’s Market. Thomas said that while she was sad to say good–bye to the old location, she thought the new market would be a good thing for the state.

“Of course it’s hard to leave a place you’ve been at for so long,” Thomas said. “But when everything is finished and all the businesses get moved in, I think it will be state of the art, and the people will be glad for the change.”

Senn agreed with Thomas and said change is necessary for growth.

“It’s not all finished right now, but they are working every day, and it will be a 100% improvement,” Senn said. “Moving is never easy, but when you move something this big after so long, now that’s a job. But it’s going to be a good thing, just like the move from Assembly to Bluff Road was a good thing.”

V. B. Hook & Company was started in the late 1920s by Thomas’s father, Martin Van Buren “Bill” Hook. He bought a pick–up truck to transport produce, mostly cabbage, from Charleston, S.C., to Columbia to sell house to house and at the farmers market on Assembly Street in Columbia. Around 1934, Hook took on a partner in the business, Johnny Mathias, and they purchased a larger truck. The profits were re–invested, and the company grew.

Thomas remembers working as a bookkeeper at the Assembly Street location as a young girl after school.

“I worked there when I would get out of class,” she said. “It was a pretty simple place, and I remember the bathrooms didn’t even have a door. You had to have somebody on lookout to tell everybody not to come back there if you had to use it,” she laughed.

Six brothers started Senn Brothers Produce Company with E.D. “Jake” and James Randolph Senn heading up the business. They moved, along with V.B. Hook, to the new location on Bluff Road and quickly grew as a prominent produce receiver in the city while continuing their wholesale produce affiliation with the State Farmers Market. In 1989, Gregg Senn and Gary Prince created the current company with its fleet of refrigerated trucks that can be spotted all over the state as they deliver their produce.

While his family and a partner, Joe Gates, helped run the business at the State Farmers Market, Bill Hook, fondly referred to as “Papa Bill,” explored produce across the USA and various parts of the world. His dream was to bring exotic as well as domestic produce to the Columbia market through V.B. Hook & Company. He operated an apple orchard in North Carolina and imported bananas and coconuts from Honduras and Guatemala. He even started his own banana plantation in Honduras to insure his was the best and the freshest produce available.

James “Jimmy” Hook, Papa Bill’s son, took over as president when his father retired. He remembers the old Assembly Street location as nothing like where the company is moving now.

“Back then it wasn’t really a market at all,” Hook said. “It was just an old house, and we turned some of the rooms into refrigerators. The street was wide and people would just unload the trucks and sell what they grew themselves.”

He smiled as he remembered the initial “refrigerated trucks” that delivered produce.

“There was a space in the front of the truck called a bunker,” the former president said. “You filled that with ice and then had a fan that would blow the iced air over the load. Back then all the truck stops sold ice so you’d have to stop and reload the ice every few hours.”

It was Bill Hook who, when he saw stationary refrigerated coolers on a trip to California, got the idea of building a mobile vacuum cooler on wheels that could travel around the country.

“It’s important to get the field heat out of the produce as soon as possible,” Jimmy Hook said. “The refrigeration used before the vacuum coolers would take overnight to cool the produce from the fields but the vacuum coolers could do it in less than an hour. The coolers worked real well because they were then able to move from place to place as the growing seasons changed.”

Although retired, Hook still retains his set of keys and he’s been to the new warehouse on several occasions. He said he’s not sure what his father would say today.

“If he could see what his ideas have turned into, I think he’d be proud. Dad liked things the way they were,” Hook said. “We didn’t even use typewriters back then. We wrote every order out with pen and paper. He liked the old ways, but he was always looking toward the future too so he would probably really like what’s happening now.”

Over the years Senn Brothers Produce and V.B. Hook Inc. have worked side by side on Assembly Street as well as Bluff Road, and the two warehouses are still going to be close at the new market. While both companies spring from the same family, both sides will tell you the competition is friendly but real.

“We always help each other out,” said Marty Hook, third generation and current president of V. B. Hook Inc. “In the end, we’re all family.”

Children, grandchildren, and even some great grandchildren are continuing the dreams of the original produce men of both families who started with a few dollars, some seeds, and a vision for their city.

When asked about plans to retire, both produce veterans Thomas and Senn only chuckle.

“I haven’t given that much thought at all,” Thomas said with a playful smile. “I’m too young and too busy to think about retiring.”

The 82–year–old Senn laughs out loud at the prospect of retiring.

“I reckon they will have to carry me out of here,” he said. “I’m not the type to sit home and do nothing.”

Senn’s wife Sylvia echoes his sentiments.

“That man will never retire,” she said. “Produce is in his blood.”

And in the early morning dawn, as they have for more than half a century, the headlights of the produce trucks can be seen rolling off the freeways up to the two docks, ready to load and unload fresh vegetables and fruits for the Midlands and the nation to enjoy.

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