Wednesday, November 28, 2007

On localvores and food systems

Recent discussions about the localvore concept at some of the blogs, coupled with the Kroger controversy on the West Side and a entry at DaytonOS about bringing back horses brought to mind some research I did on on thee history of the Arcade and on neighborhood retail in St Anne's Hill, and the larger question of a local food system, and how this would have functioned in the 19th century without motor transport.

In the 19th and early 20th century people pretty much were localvores by default. Only with the advent of practical refrigerated freight cars in the 1880s and 90s would perishable foods be imported from outside the area, though I suspect canned and bottled foods might have been available earlier. Even up to the WWI era one probably was eating a mix of local and out-of-region foods with the local being a substantial portion of ones diet.

Given that fruits and vegetables had to be locally grown meant that a belt of market farming would have developed around Dayton, where farmers would be growing for the local urban market to some extent. Presumably this would be the case for poultry, pork, and beef too (Maybe less so) and dairy products. Beyond this belt one would see more commodity farming for export.

One can see this in these 1875 maps of Harrison and Mad River townships, where there was a belt of smaller landholdings around the city. Some of this was land divided for speculation,. Some was country estates for the Dayton bourgeois. However, I suspect that there was also a lot of small market farming going on for the city market.

(the inset shows what might be market farms with little orchards)

In fact the atlas that’s the source of these maps says this (of Mad River Township)(italics mine):

"...The people in this township are wealthy and the soil is extremely fertile. The farmers are close to the city market. Land is worth on the average one hundred dollars per acre..."

Taking a closer look one sees that there was sort of cycle operating. One thinks of food as a one way flow, but human waste was part of the process here as Dayton did not have a complete sewer system until the end of the 1880s. Privies were used instead, which meant the privy vaults had to be cleaned out. This was done by dealers in "night soil", who cleaned the privy vaults and then hauled the waste out to the farmers for use in fertilizer for crops. So it one sees an early example of recycling of organic matter (though one wonders about the stench and how sanitary this was)

Food is not limited to fruits and vegetables (unless one is a vegan), so there was also a meat an dairy supply. Per an 1869 map of Montgomery County one can see slaughterhouses in operation off Germantown Street at the western edge of the city. Presumably the rendered meat was sold to local butchers, as there are no rail connections shown to these operations. Eventually (at the end of the 1870s) a local stockyard was established in the vicinity of the slaughterhouses.

Dayton had a central market downtown, but as the city grew neighborhood markets formed. I have been able to to ID two outlying market halls (Wayne Avenue and in Webster Station), and, beyond that, two additional market squares (near Front Street and at the Haymarket).

Here is the largest outlying market hall, the Wayne Avenue market, at Burns and Wayne.

The original market house from the 1860s

And a later expanded version, awaiting demolition for US 35
A notional diagram of the food system as it might have operated by WWI. By this time one sees more food imports so a network of jobbers and warehouses would have developed to act as middlemen. There would still be a network of markets and a distribution system would have developed to haul food from markets and warehouses to retailers.

And a diagram on how this might have looked as a geography (loosely based on Dayton). One sees the central wholesale markets, produce terminals for food coming in by rail, the wholesale district for "imported" canned and processed foods, retail farmers markets, neighborhood markets in older neighborhoods (presumably before grocery stores became widespread), and then city neighborhoods with their network of corner stores selling various kinds of foods. These were sometimes called 'daily markets' in the city directory, but there were also, presumably, grocers, butcher shops, bakers, etc.

One also sees the stockyards and slaughterhouses located on the outskirts a bit. This was the case in Dayton as well, as the west side Dayton stockyards and packers moved to the eastern edge of the city after the west side became more built-up.

Not shown would be the local transfer haulers, using wagons and later trucks to haul foodstuffs from the markets, warehouses and terminals to the corner stores.

An interesting consideration is restocking and time through process. Given that home refrigeration was nearly non-existent, relying, at best, on small ice boxes cooled with real ice, meant there was more shopping. Instead of a weekly grocery trip it was more frequent, maybe even daily (on foot) to the local purveyors. So there was probably an ongoing restocking going one, as product was being pulled through the system via frequent (though low volume per trip) shopping.

Nowadays this local food system (really a hybrid of local and out-of-region) has collapsed. Oh, sure, there are specialized producers and the 2nd Street market, but this is really just a specialty trade. A robust city-wide system like I've diagrammed does not exist anymore.

It would be tough to reproduce this, too, as a local system could never compete against the economics of scale arising from mass production, centralized purchasing and marketing, and low-cost high volume sales, all operating at a national or multi-state scale.

So being a localvore is a tough deal, as one could never purchase a full range of foods that are locally produced. I suspect this is one of those European concepts that don't cross the pond too well.


metromark said...

This is an interesting post because it discusses the negatives as well as the positives of having the two kinds of food distribution systems mentioned. We seem to pine for the "organic" and "fresh" of the local system but forget about the unsanitary and deadly conditions that led to its demise. Dayton, as well as the rest of the country, suffered from epidemics often caused by unsanitary food conditions. Both in 1832 and in 1849, Dayton went through devastating cholera epidemics killing hundreds. Typhoid fever was still another common cause of death due to unsanitary conditions. Orville Wright almost died of it in 1896, and Wilbur did die of it in 1912. Don't get me wrong, I still like "local," "fresh," and "organic" but I can understand why the local system went away.

Another aside to your discussion of the local food distribution system was the mode of transportation. At one time, Ohio had the largest network of interurban (electric, light-rail) trackage in the country. One of the biggest users of this system were the farmers who used the trolleys with "baggage" cars in the rear to take their produce to market. Symmes Station of Wright Brothers/Huffman Prairie Flying Field fame was one of those interurban stops "in the middle of nowhere" that farmers used to load their produce to market.

Jeffrey said...

The situation in Dayton, with a growing city not having a sewer system as late as the 1880s was pretty suprising to me, as Chicago had one before the Civil War. Perhaps Chicago was the exception and other Midwestern cities lagged along with Dayton?

Fortunatly Dayton did have a water supply system, or the disease rates here would have been off the charts if people had to rely on private well water.

I think in Europe a they did improve sanitation but retained a lot of of their local food systems and the traditions that grew up around it.

They also added mass marketed processed foods, but are fighting the increase of this at the expesne of their local foodways.

That's what led to this slow food movement and the concept of localvore.

The difference is that the Europeans had something to defend, as a form of cultural conservation. We do not.

So the movement has different reasons & motivations here in the US vs Europe.

Greg Hunter said...

I used your post as a springboard.