Susan Taylor Block
“Wilmington is chiefly composed of two streets crossing each other, the one running parallel to the River. The market place stands in the place where the two streets meet; this was a capital error as it interrupts the prospect every way,” wrote glib traveler William Mylne in the 1770s. Locals were not moved by his words and in 1848, built a new Market House, deemed a “beautiful superstructure,” on virtually the same spot as the old bright yellow one. The location was the residential and commercial heart of Wilmington for over a century. Many prominent citizens resided there, like Governor William Tryon who, before moving the state capitol to New Bern, had a townhouse on the south side of the street.
The scene was enhanced by as many as a hundred ships docking in the Cape Fear River every day, making it a sort of world bazaar within the provincial city. As if horses, carriages, carts and pedestrians did not create enough activity to watch from the iron balconies that used to line the block, occasionally canoes paddled past on their way to the intersection of Second and Market streets where the “Mud Market” thrived. The Mud Market was a separate site usually reserved for the smelly business of selling seafood in a time when ice was a luxury. Before a system of subterranean tunnels harnessed the brook Jacobs Run, the lower end of the street was navigable to small flat bottomed boats.
Contractor Benjamin Gardner, a former resident of Savannah, supervised the work on the 1848 Market House which extended down Market Street from Front towards the Cape Fear River. The stylized colonnade measured 187 by 25 feet. Thirty-eight cast iron columns supported a plaster ceiling, iron roof and a tower that housed a 565 pound bell. Influenced by John Norris’s work in Savannah, Mr. Gardner probably also designed the stylized structure, complete with a neoclassical crest above the belfry. His artistry was applauded by the local newspaper: “The height of the stalls and the lightness of the racks offers little obstruction to the view across the street and leaves the architectural proportion and beauty of the columns undiminished.”
Ten vendors’ stalls, each delegated either to fish, meat or vegetables, filled the brick-floored market. The bell, procured in 1751 to replace drums as the usual municipal routing call, was the main feature on the second floor of the Market House. James Sprunt wrote that it “was rung at nine o’clock, one o’clock and seven o’clock; and it rang the nine o’clock curfew, which required all slaves without a pass to leave the street.” On special occasions, bells were not enough. Black trumpeter Philip Bassadier played reveille at the Market to note holidays and military events.
The west end of the market afforded a good view of the ancient ducking stool, a seat attached to a large wooden beam that could be lowered into the Cape Fear to punish and embarrass local lawbreakers. Another unusual sight was the Christmas Kooners, blacks in fancy costumes who sang and danced for large crowds around town. On New Year’s Eve, they rode through the streets on horses to the Market House where they staged a mock wedding of Old Testament figures Rebecca and Isaac. Year round, nomadic performers plied their trade around the Market.
In a controversial move, the Market House was torn down January 20,1881, after the city moved meat vending to the market on Front Street between Dock and Orange. Alfred Howe, a talented black builder who had purchased the old building from the City of Wilmington for $150, razed it throughout the rainy day, noting that “every timber was still sound.” The tower fell at four in the afternoon, but the ancient bell had already been removed and was installed later in the fire station on Fourth and Campbell streets. Maybe Alfred Howe “recycled” all that sound timber, possibly incorporating it into the McKoy House, a James Post design that Howe built at 402 South Third Street.
The “Paradise Tree,” probably named for the scarcity of shade, can be glimpsed on the far left side of the photo. The tree and a telegraph pole nearby were cut down seven days after the market was razed. Despite the fact that everything was leveled and the rubble had been removed, loyalties to the Old Market House ran deep for weeks. Several vendors refused to trade at the new market, including one salty proprietor of a fish cart. When instructed to move from what had become merely the street, he cried that he “ ‘Wouldn’t by a damned sight.’ Then he wheeled his horse about and started in the direction from whence he came.”
Copyright 1999, Susan Taylor Block. (Additional photos added to online version.) All proceeds from Cape Fear Lost go to Cape Fear Museum. Cape Fear Lost is available at area bookstores and at http://www.arcadiapublishing.com/