If you’ve lived in Oklahoma long, you have at least one memory of the OKC Farmers Public Market.
A wedding. A concert. A sporting event. A first date over drinks or dinner. Or even just some weekend shopping.
As the district’s current incarnation closes in on a century in operation, entrepreneurs are looking to the area’s past to chart a course for its future.
“Before the Farmers Market ever existed, it was Delmar Gardens, which was the largest amusement park west of the Mississippi [River]. They had a beer garden down there and all kinds of different entertainment and music and rides and food,” William McAnally, the district’s vice president, said.
The western boundary of the amusement park, which boasted one of the earliest Ferris wheels in the country, abuts what is now Wheeler Park. A newer version of the classic ride sits on its grounds.
In its day, the city’s trolley service was packed with people coming from miles away to Delmar Gardens, which also featured a 3,000-seat theater, dance pavilion, a racetrack, baseball field, swimming pool, exotic animal zoo, penny arcade, wedding chapel, hotel and restaurant among other attractions.
Prohibition was the death rattle for the park, but the zoo remained on the grounds until 1923, when major flooding killed most of its animals. The surviving species were relocated to what are now the grounds of the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
The area was still a thriving hub and conflicts between local farmers and downtown businesses led to the erection of the Farmers Public Market building and its surrounding “fan.”
“All the farmers were coming downtown and just congesting the area, so instead of that, there was an organized place that you could go to, an outdoor market, where they could set up. That fan building, the building that wraps around the main building, it used to just be a roof. It didn’t have sides on it, and so people would just set up under there,” McAnally said.
The two-story, 40,000 square-foot structure that still looms over the area opened in 1928, its downstairs area being used by vendors selling their wares while the ballroom above was used for a number of purposes, including concerts, boxing matches and roller skating.
“The first event ever in the Farmers Market were three, ten-round bare knuckle boxing matches. People who grew up in Oklahoma City, if their grandparents are from here, the odds are that they learned to roller skate on that floor and we’ve got girls doing roller derby on it almost a century later. Those grandparents probably also learned to dance on that floor and we’ve got people in there for EDM and hip-hop shows and dancing like young people. There’s just a lot of people who’ve played there, Count Basie or Duke Ellington, those old jazz guys, and Hank Williams, Merl Lindsay, Little Jimmy Dickens. Every single country-western singer back in that day played in that building. Merl Lindsay had control of that building and, while it was under his control and he was promoting it, they called it Lindsayland, the upstairs. Now, we have concerts there and try to promote as much music there as we can just trying to keep the history alive. And, at the same time, interweave the creativity and free expression of what we’ve got going on in Oklahoma, you know, as a collective community, as a culture,” McAnally said.
As the city and suburbs developed, along with the Green Revolution, what once housed farmer stalls turned into the antique mall. Crowds thinned and the area fell into disrepair.
William’s parents, Burt and Jody McAnally, fresh from rehabilitating what is now known as the Paseo Plunge building, took on the challenge, purchasing the property in 2002 from the grandson of the original owner.
In addition to restoring the property itself, the McAnallys sought to restore the glory days of the farmers market. When Matt Burch opened his permanent Urban Agrarian location on the southwest part of the property a decade ago, he also ushered in a fresh crop of merchants. The district’s farmers market, which happens every Saturday year-round from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., boasts more than 40 vendors selling beef, eggs, dairy, fruits and vegetables, bread and coffee among others.
“One of my favorite quotes is on the archway over the door on the east side of the building, and it says, ‘Millions of people have passed through this door,’ and, since that was written on there, tens of millions of people have passed through that doorway in that building alone and tens of millions of people have come into this district and will continue to come into this district. And the farmer’s market is being seen, and not just by us, but by lots of tourists. We have thousands of people come down to our district every single weekend,” McAnally said.
Other businesses have slowly trickled into the district, with more than 15 currently in operation and more slated to open soon.
In addition to agricultural vendors like the Pinata Store (which sells no pinatas but has plenty of fresh local vegetables and imported fruits) and P.A.M.’s, which is where you see the plethora of live plants as you drive into or pass by the district on Reno Avenue.
Powerhouse is one of the district’s anchors, housed in the district’s original power station. Clay Berkes founded the bar in 2015 with its southwestern-style decor and a menu that is rich in green chiles.
Spicy cocktails and spicier chili led to the annual Great Americana Hatch Chile Festival, which celebrated its fourth year in September.
Just beyond it are Tallgrass Supply Co., which sells all things Oklahoma from clothing to artisanal candles and soaps, and Voight Knives, which sells the fine metal work of its artist-craftsman namesake.
The Loaded Bowl put Oklahoma City on the vegan food map nearly a decade ago, while Palo Santo, which opened just as the pandemic was beginning, is consistently busy with its unmatched craft cocktail program and menu.
Burt McAnally is a lifelong boxing enthusiast and the return of matches to the district was in his original vision, so they donate space to Guerrero’s Boxing Gym.
“It’s mostly a youth amateur boxing gym where they compete and we’ve had a bunch of different nationally-ranked amateur boxers come out of that gym. A lot of the coaches are volunteer coaches. It has a really good, strong community feel. We’re providing a really positive way for young men and girls, we have female boxers in there too, to just build confidence and have a sense of community,” William McAnally said.
Businesses set to open in the district in the near future include The Atomic Cooperative, which serves as a dual motorcycle cooperative and coffee bar, and the Farmers Market Wine Bar.
McAnally said that he and the newly-reconstituted district’s board of directors are working on expanding the boundaries, with Reno Avenue on the north and Interstate 40 on the south and from the eastern boundary of Classen Boulevard west to Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Relative to big cities, it would be kind of a normal sized district, but relative to Oklahoma City, it’s going to be a massive district,” McAnally said.
The scale of the district makes the area enormously attractive for a large-scale annual festival or three, he said.
Max Naifeh, who is the board president, is also the co-owner of Anthem Brewing, which sits on the eastern edge of the district’s boundaries.
Naifeh’s family owns a number of real estate properties near his brewery and plans are in the works to expand the businesses on that end of the district as well, he said.
“This is a little bit different than running a business. It is a business. It’s a business of people,” Naifeh said. “We haven’t dug that deep. We’re one foot down, we’ve got 2,000 feet to go. It’s limitless where this can go. It really is. You see it with all the other districts and new concepts opening,” Naifeh said.
He also pointed out the benefits of fresh produce that have been largely forgotten due to the Green Revolution.
“When you come down here, you can taste the difference in the produce … It gives people the power to control what they eat. You don’t have to sit there and look on the back of your produce. What is in this? Look at celery and carrots. They shouldn’t need nutrition facts. What preservatives are in this? It shouldn’t have an ingredients list,” Naifeh said.
Additionally, McAnally and Naifeh are working on large-scale infrastructure investments for the entire district, including additional lighting, signage, trash cans and benches.
“This has made my passion, since we started working together, skyrocket. I’m wanting to get off my ass and really go do this thing. It’s made me a lot happier person too. We’re making change, and we want to do it for future generations. We want to keep this alive,” Naifeh said.
“As corny and cliche as it sounds, the most valuable thing that we have in our lives are our experiences and our memories. My parents have always been that way, and that’s how I was raised. To have people over to your house and make dinner for them and make drinks for them and have a party where we all get together and we just, like, stop and don’t worry about all of our day-to-day bullshit, and just have a moment,” McAnally said, his voice increasingly shaky as he begins to shed tears.
“I get emotional talking about it. But to have a moment where we can just be together and kind of celebrate the good things and the positive things in life and new things and be creative. It’s contagious. That feeling is contagious when people get together and celebrate. It’s one of my favorite things in the world to have those experiences and I think that it’s just a real golden opportunity, you know, that has been gifted to us as the stewards of the venue and members of the Farmers Market District community. We’re just members of the community. Obviously, we have a large influence on it because of the property that we own and the advantages that we have and we just want to use those advantages to create as many memories and as many experiences for people as possible for them to carry with them for the rest of their lives.”