For years the sprawling roadside shops and stands in Charlotte Hall have been more flea market than farmers market and, even though some people still call it the "Amish Market," the merchants are selling car tools and Florida fruit alongside used pots and pans.
"It was no longer Amish," lamented Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's, Calvert), stating one reason he helped push the successful initiative to find a new location for a true Amish market in St. Mary's County.
On Saturday morning, Dyson, along with farmers and county and state officials, will preside over the grand opening of the new Amish Farmers Market on a shady spot next to the county library parking lot, just a few miles down on the southbound side of Route 5 near the intersection with Route 6. The market has been open unofficially since July 10.
"This is just wonderful, everyone here together," said Kay Mudd, a St. Mary's resident who stopped when she saw the market on her way to a veterinary supply store this week. She parked at the library lot and bought corn and cantaloupe from farmer Samuel Swarey.
Swarey's horse-drawn cart was piled high with cantaloupe and corn, and he had arranged watermelons on the mulch-covered ground. Nearby, two horses were tethered to a tree, and four other Amish farmers stood by their buggies. They were selling squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and cantaloupe.
"It's slow. On the road, we sell a lot," Swarey said.
Since the market opened, sheriff's deputies have been discouraging Amish farmers from parking their fruit and vegetable carts on area roadsides, asking them instead to bring their merchandise to the new market. Traditionally, Amish farmers have been free to pull their wagons up on highway shoulders and set up shop. Although that offered easy access for both farmers and customers, the practice posed safety risks as highway motorists stopped.
That was one reason, Dyson said, that it made sense to bring the farmers together in a central location.
In addition, it helps assure that buyers get real Southern Maryland produce, Dyson said.
"This is going to be a guarantee." he said. "You can't have more local than Amish farmers. You're gonna know that you'll buy something that's truly grown here."
Dyson first proposed putting the new market on the wide highway median just across from the library location, but state highway officials raised safety concerns about vehicles pulling on and off the median. After discussions with library trustees, the site next to the library parking lot was cleared.
"I think it's a good outcome," said former county commissioner Larry Jarboe, who is closely associated with the Amish community in St. Mary's and had been kicking around the idea of a real Amish market for years. During this year's discussions for a new site, Jarboe helped by driving Amish farmers to various meetings. "Essentially I was the driver," Jarboe said.
After the safety concerns were raised, Dyson contacted Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and other state officials in his effort to find a place for the Amish farmers.
"My point was, don't let bureaucracy slow this thing down. I didn't want bureaucrats to put the idea on their desks and say, `I'll attend to it later.' Timing was critical. You have to meet the farmers' growing season. It had to happen quickly," Dyson said.
In late May, Glendening indicated that he shared Dyson's interest, saying in a letter to the senator that a new market would fit well with state efforts "over the past several years to find ways for [Amish families] to further process their products on the farm."
Local officials have noted that the new market is safer for the farmers for a reason totally unrelated to traffic.
Several Amish and Mennonite farmers have been victimized by robbers in northern St. Mary's, near the Charles County border. A Mechanicsville man was arrested a
"There's safety in numbers," said Donna Sasscer, an agriculture specialist with the St. Mary's Department of Economic and Community Development. "It's a lot safer for everybody."
So far, business has been a little slow at the new market, according to some of the farmers who have set up shop there. Some of those who helped to get it going are hoping Saturday's grand opening will draw attention.
"I think a little bit of promotion would help," Jarboe said. "A buggy out on the highway -- they need a good hook from the highway."