Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Old Market, Bloemfontein

Thinking about CSA's and farmers' markets, and how Local has come to mean New, I remembered the old Bloemfontein market, to which my mother sometimes took me when she shopped there when I was very little. I have a fleeting, mental snapshot of an enormous, honey-coloured sandstone building, cavernous and cool and filled with vegetables, butter, eggs. And that is all. So asked my mother to tell me more.

I struggled to find a picture of the building, either archived or current and met with silence from official sources. But jvdh kindly and with common sense sent me a link from Google's Street Views. The market stills stands, is smaller than in memory, but then, I am larger; and it has suffered an unfortunate paint job.

Here, in Maureen Viljoen's words, is the market, as it was:

"I love markets. And the one I've enjoyed most was the old Bloemfontein market, a beautiful dilapidated building which housed the local farmers and their produce. Butcher shops lined the walls, framed by archways. Little black kids vied with each other to carry your baskets. It was in this place that I stocked up for the week as well as passing the time of day with friends and farmers.

There was a round, cheerful little lady, Mrs Rousseau, whom I inherited from my mother as a supplier of eggs. Her stall was never abundantly loaded as others but her spanspeks at Christmas time were the sweetest. At Christmas she was not cheerful as sad memories overwhelmed her. It was on Christmas Day years ago that her only daughter was killed in a car accident. She churned her own "farm" butter - you had to get there early, sold carefully dressed fowls and once even offered to slag a pet goose when I ventured that maybe goose would be an alternative to festive season turkey. I declined, graciously I hope. With her produce you would also get her problems - my mother must have a particularly good listener as I inherited the sessions as well.

How many Bloemfontein people my age still remember Mr van Rensburg's ducks? Sometimes he would also bring into town pale blue duck eggs which I could never resist but never knew what to do with them. In summer, his stall was piled high with delicious, tender young mealies. He had many customers and he was one of my favourite farmers because he believed in pulling his carrots, turnips and beetroot before they became big, old and woody. I remember he was absent for several weeks and when he returned, his right hand was heavily bandaged - he had chopped off a thumb and half a finger in an accident on his small holding. After that he seemed to have lost his oomph, along with the thumb and finger, and probably his livelihood. The ducks no longer came; the mealies were fewer and then came the Friday market day, when his stall remained covered with sacking, untended and unattended.

The most popular seller had her stall in the middle of the market - it was also right under the favourite perch of resident pigeons, which made shopping dodgy. At her stall I found fresh brussels sprouts, usually with attendant aphids, and dried peaches. Early on a Friday, it would be to her stall I was drawn by the plaintive cheep-cheep of day-old chicks.

And now it's all gone. Not the building though. It's a run-down shopping centre, I believe, but few people go there because the criminal element has made it dangerous."


spanspeks - sweet melons with orange flesh
slag - slaughter
mealies - maize, corn

The End

Ed - doesn't look too run down, but hard to tell from a street view.

Perhaps a brave new food revolution will sweep Bloemies and sweep fresh produce and stalls and crowds back into the old building, along the lines of the Neighbourhood Goods Market in formerly dodgy Salt River. One can hope.


  1. Beautiful and vividly recalled memories. Everyone of us need to record the earlier everyday lives of our mothers, in particular, before it's too late.

  2. This takes me back. When I was little, this part of the bronx was still semi-rural. There was a man, Mr Parco, who drove a truck around the neighborhood and sold fruit. It was very exciting to us young ones -- much like when the ice cream truck comes around today.

  3. Ah ha! A mother who writes well, too.

  4. How interesting to hear your mother's voice...and her recalling of *her* mother. I'd say the gift of storytelling must run in your family! Believe it or not, when my family lived in newly suburban Virginia in the mid 1950s, there was a man at the end of the street who still kept chickens and my father remembers with great pleasure the men who drove up from Georgia in July and sold peaches from the back of their truck. (The old neighborhood still exists as a little island in time but it's now near a huge highway project and local mall.)

  5. Thank you, on behalf of The Mother.

    Funny, I think we are returning to a time when we might have a truck selling local produce in our neighbourhoods, and chickens at the end of the street.

    It is the milkman I remember, in his electric, three wheeler car delivering his bottles of milk, clink clink clink and fetching the empties. The milk had cream at the top, under the depressed foil lid... In Cape Town it was bags of milk, plastic bags, delivered into our waiting jugs. If the cats got out early, the bags would have holes in them.


Comments left on older posts are moderated (purely for spam control). Please be patient, you will be seen!