Issue 30

Harvesting Food and Friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, Where Agriculture, History and Art Meet

Harvesting Food and Friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, Where Agriculture, History and Art Meet

The ‘Mill Lady’ is hard to miss at the Florence Mill Farmers Market on summer Sundays. She’s the beaming, bespectacled woman wearing the straw hat adorned by sprays of plastic fruit and vegetables.

Market vendors include local farmers, urban ag growers, gardeners and food truck purveyors. It’s been going strong since 2009 thanks to Linda Meigs, aka The Mill Lady. As director of the historic mill, located at 9102 North 30th Street, she’s transformed a derelict site into a National Register of Historic Places cultural attraction “connecting agriculture, history and art.”

She “wears” many hats beyond the fun one. As market manager, she books vendors. She organizes exhibits at the Art Loft Gallery on the mill’s top floor. She curates the history museum on the main level. She schedules and hosts special events. She writes grants to fund operations. Supervising the mid-19th century structure’s maintenance and repairs is a job in itself.

Ever since her and her late husband John acquired the abandoned mill in 1997, Meigs has been its face and heart. An artist by nature and trade, she also has an abiding appreciation for history.

“Omaha would be such a beautiful city with some of the architecture we’ve torn down. This is not the most beautiful architecture in Omaha, but it is the oldest historic business site and the only still-standing building in the state that bridges the historic eras of the overland pioneer trails of the 1840s with the territorial settlement of the 1850s. That’s a very small niche – but what a cool one. And it has this Mormon heritage and connection to Brigham Young, who supervised its construction.”

It took her awhile to arrive at the ag-history-art combo she now brands it with.

“I had very vague, artsy ideas about what to do. But that first summer (1998) I was in here just cleaning, which was the first thing that needed to be done, and I had a thousand visitors and the building wasn’t even open. A thousand people found their way here and they were all coming to see those 1846 Mormon hand-hewed timbers

“It was like those timbers told me it needed to be open as an historic site after that experience. This is my 20th summer with the mill.”

She made the guts of the mill into the Winter Quarters Mill Museum with intact original equipment and period tools on view. Interpretive displays present in words and images the site’s history, including the western-bound pioneers who built it. She converted the top floor into the ArtLoft Gallery that shows work by local-regional artists. Then she added the farmers market.

“It was not really until after it happened I realized what I had. Then I could stand back and appreciate the integrity of it. I felt like it was a natural fit for that building because it was an ag industrial site and an historic site. The pioneer trails are certainly a significant historical passage of our country.

“Then, too, I’m an artist and a foodie. I think supporting local is good for both personal health and for conservation of resources. It promotes individual health and the health of the local farm economy. It has less impact on the environment with trucking when you bring things in from close by as opposed to far away.

“I’m into fresh, locally-produced food. In the summer I pretty much live on local vegetables. I am a gardener myself and I do support my farmers market folks, too.”

Farmers markets are ubiquitous today in the metro. Hers owns the distinction of being the farthest north within the city limits. It proved popular from the jump.

“That first farmers market started with six vendors.

Hundreds of people showed. It was a crush of people for those vendors. And then every week that summer the number of vendors increased. I think we ended up with about 40 vendors. I was pleased.

“Really, 30 is about the perfect number. It’s the most manageable with the space I have. I’m not trying to compete with the maddening crowd market.”

Finding the right mix is a challenge.

“You want to have enough variety to choose from, but you also have to have the customers that will support those vendors or they won’t come back. If the community doesn’t support it, it’s hard to keep it going.”

Other markets may have more vendors, but few can match her setting.

“This one is quite unique. It’s in a field. It’s inside and outside an historic ag building. And it feels like an authentic place for a market.”

She cultivates an intimate, upbeat atmosphere.

“It’s like a country fair. I have live music. Dale Thornton’s always there with his country soft pop ballads in the morning. The afternoon varies from a group called Ring of Flutes to old-time country bluegrass circle jams. Second Sundays is kind of a surprise. One time I had harpists show up. Lutist Kenneth Be has played here several times. I’ve had dueling banjos. Just whatever.”

A massage therapist is usually there plying her healing art. Livestock handlers variously bring in lamas, ponies and chickens for petting-feeding.

A main attraction for many vendors is Meigs.

“Oh, she’s beautiful. Nice lady, yeah,” said Lawrence Gatewood, who has the market cornered with barbecue with his T.L.C. Down Home Food stall.

Jared Uecker, owner of O’tille Pork & Pantry, said, “Linda’s exceptional to work with and really cares about the market and its vendors. She’s passionate about local food and is a frequent customer of ours.”

Jim and Sylvia Thomas of Thomas Farms in Decatur, Nebraska are among the produce vendors who’ve been there from near the start and they’re not going anywhere as long as Meigs is around.

“Everybody loves Linda. She’s what makes it,” Jim Thomas said. “She’s really doing a good job and she’s pretty much doing it for free. I mean, we pay her a little stall fee but for what we get it’s a deal.”

“Jim and Sylvia Thomas came in the middle of that first season and they’ve come back every year,” Meigs said.

“We kind of grew along with it,” Thomas said. “It’s a really nice friendly little market. We’re also down at the Haymarket in Lincoln, but it’s touristy, This (Florence Mill) is more of a real, live food market.”

Thomas is the third-generation operator of his family farm but now that he and his wife are nearing retirement they’re backing off full-scale farming “to do more of this.” “I like the interchange with the people. I guess you’d say it’s our social because out in the boondocks you never see anybody. The thing about Florence is that you get everybody. It’s really varied.”

That variation extends to fellow vendors, including Mai Thao and her husband. The immigrants from Thailand grow exquisite vegetables and herbs

“They came towards end of the first season and they’ve always been there since,” Meigs said.

Then there’s Gatewood’s “down home” Mississippi-style barbecue. He learned to cook from his mother. He makes his own sausage and head-cheese. He grows and cooks some mean collard greens.

Gatewood said, “I make my own everything.”

“I call him “Sir Lawrence,” Meigs said. “He’s come for the last three years. He smokes his meats and beans right there. He grills corn on the cob.”

Gatewood gets his grill and smoker going early in the morning. By lunchtime, the sweet, smokey aroma is hard for public patrons and fellow vendors to resist.

“He’s a real character and he puts out a real good product,” said Thomas.

Kesa Kenny, chef-owner of Finicky Frank’s Cafe, “does tailgate food at the market,” said Meigs. “She goes around and buys vegetables from the vendors and then makes things right on the spot. She makes her own salsa and guacamole and things. You never know what she’s going to make or bring. She’s very creative.”

Kenny’s sampler market dishes have also included a fresh radish salad, a roasted vegetable stock topped, pho-style, with chopped fresh vegetables, and a creamy butter bean spread. She said she wants people “to see how simple it is” to create scrumptious, nutritious dishes from familiar, fresh ingredients on hand.

“From a farmers market you could eat all summer long for pennies,” Kenny said.

More than a vendor, Kenny’s a buyer.

“She’s very supportive,” Meigs said. “For years, she’s bought her vegetables for her restaurant from the market.”

“It’s so wonderful to have that available,” Kenny said.

Meigs said that Kenny embodies the market’s sense of community.

“She comes down to the market and does this cooking without advertising her own restaurant. I told her, ‘You need to tell people you’re Kesa of Finicky Franks,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m not doing this to advertise my restaurant, I’m doing this to support the market and to be part of the fun.’ That’s a pretty unique attitude.”

“Kesa’s also an artist. She and I knew each other back at the Artists Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market. She quit to open a cafe-coffee shop and I quit to do an art project and then got the mill instead. It’s funny that we have reconnected in Florence.”

Jim Thomas likes that the market coincides with exhibits at the ArtLoft Gallery, which he said provides exposure to the art scene he and his wife otherwise don’t get.

“I really enjoy the artsy people and the crafts people. They’re so creative. I guess what I’m saying is for us it isn’t about the food as much as it is about the people.”

Being part of a site with such a rich past as a jumping off point to the West is neat, too.

“That’s some big history,” said Thomas.

He added that the variety and camaraderie keep them coming back. “It’s really diverse and we’ve developed a lot of friendships down there.”

“It’s a great mingling of different nationalities and cultures.” Sylvia Thomas confirmed. “All the vendors help each other out, which is very unique. At a lot of markets, they don’t do that. Here, if you don’t have something that someone’s looking for, we’ll refer you to who has it. After you’ve been there long enough like we have, vendors and customers become kind of a family. Our regular customers introduce us to their kids and grandkids and keep us posted on what’s going on, and they ask how our family’s doing.

“We kind of intertwine each other.”

The couple traditionally occupies the market’s northeast corner, where gregarious Jim Thomas holds court.

“Linda (Meigs) tells us, ‘You’re our welcoming committee.’ It’s very fun, we enjoy it a lot,” Sylvia Thomas said.

Lawrence Gatewood echoes the family-community vibe found there.

“It’s real nice there. Wonderful people.”

Even though business isn’t always brisk, Gatewood’s found a sweet spot on the market’s southeast side.

“Not every Sunday’s good, but I still like being out there mingling with the people.”

But food, not frivolity, is what most patrons are after.

“Our big deal in the summer is peppers and tomatoes,” Jim Thomas said. “We also have onions, potatoes, cucumbers, eggplants. We do sweet corn but sweet corn is really secondary. Early this year, if we get lucky, we might have some morels down there. Morels sell like crazy. We can sell just as many as we’ve got.”

In the fall, Thomas pumpkins rule.

The veggies and herbs that Mai Thao features at her family stall pop with color. There are variously green beans, peas, bok choy, radishes, fingerling potatoes, cucumbers, kale, cilantro and basil.

Makers of pies, cakes and other sweets are also frequent vendors at the market.

The farmers market is not the only way the mill intersects with food. Meigs has found a kindred spirit in

No More Empty Pots (NMEP) head Nancy Williams, whose nonprofit’s Food Hub is mere blocks away.

“We both have an interest in food and health,” Meigs said as it relates to creating sustainable food system solutions. “Nancy is also into cultivating entrepreneurs and I guess I am too in a way.”

Jared Uecker found the market “a wonderful starting point” for his start-up O’tille Pork & Pantry last year.

“It was the perfect home for us to begin selling our meat products. I really enjoyed its small-size, especially for businesses new to the market such as ourselves. It gave us a great opportunity to have a consistent spot to showcase our products and bring in revenue for the business. I particularly enjoyed the small-town family feel to it. It’s filled with really great local people using it for their weekly shopping as opposed to some other bigger markets which can feel more like people are there more to browse.”

The mill and NMEP have organized Blues and Barbecue Harvest Party joint fundraisers at the mill.

Meigs has welcomed other events involving food there.

“I’ve hosted a lot of different things. Every year is kind of different. In 2014 the mill was the setting for a Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest performance of Wood Music. The piece immersed the audience in reenactments of the mill’s early history, complete with actors in costume and atmospheric lighting. A traditional hoedown, complete with good eats and live bluegrass music, followed the play.

Kesa Kenny catered a lunch there featuring Darrell Draper in-character as Teddy Roosevelt. A group held an herb festival at the mill. Another year, crates of Colorado peaches starred.

“I occasionally do flour sack lunches for bus tour groups that come,” Meigs said. “I make flour sacks and stuff them with grain sampler sandwiches that I have made to my specifications by one of the local restaurants. It’s like an old-fashioned picnic lunch we have on the hay bales in the Faribanks Scale.”

The mill is part of the North Omaha Hills Pottery Tour the first full weekend of October each year. The Czech Notre Dame Sisters hold a homemade kolache sale there that weekend.

Leo Adam Biga

Leo Adam Biga

Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based author-journalist-blogger. His books include Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden and Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. The University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate contributes articles to newspapers and magazines. His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, regional and national levels. Sample his eclectic writing at leoadambiga.com or www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.


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