Bethesda Historical Society

Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market

Credit: Montgomery Farm Women's Cooperative Market Facebook page

Founded in 1932, the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market is the oldest continuously operated farm market in Montgomery County, and a pioneering example of women’s entrepreneurship.

Tucked amid modern office buildings on busy Wisconsin Avenue stands a white, one story building that has been a hub of Bethesda life for almost 90 years. The Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market is the oldest continuously operated farm market in Montgomery County. It endures as both a reminder of Bethesda’s agricultural past and a symbol of the continued vibrancy of our community.

By 1930, the Great Depression caused economic conditions to deteriorate rapidly. Farm mortgages were being foreclosed upon and taxes were going unpaid. A group of 19 enterprising farmers’ wives from Bethesda, as well as Rockville, Gaithersburg, Monrovia, Germantown, Spencerville and other farming communities gathered to seek a creative and sustainable way to augment their family incomes.

These women, through their membership in University of Maryland-sponsored Home Demonstration Clubs and the help of a local Extension agent, arranged to receive government training in the nuts and bolts of business management.  Their goal was to generate needed income by selling high quality produce, dairy and meat products, baked goods and crafts to residents of DC and its expanding suburbs at a weekly self-managed market. Thus, the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market was born.

Bethesda Farm Women’s Cooperative  in 1932

With the assistance first of Blanche Corwin and then of  Edythe Turner,  Home Demonstration Agents for Montgomery County, the women formed a Club Council that spent nearly two years working with agriculturalists and nutritionists to select, prepare and standardize potential sale products. Before the market’s opening, the group spread the word via Washington and County newspapers and hand distributed flyers in nearby neighborhoods.

On February 4, 1932, the Market’s first sales took place in a vacant store on the 6700 block of Wisconsin Avenue. By all accounts, it was an immediate and resounding success. By June the market had grown markedly and shifted from weekly to semiweekly operations. The market still had no permanent location – the women first leased a building on nearby Leland Street, and then moved to a tent at the corner of Leland Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Some Council members wanted to move to an Edgemoor site on the western side of Wisconsin Avenue, but this was opposed by some Edgemoor residents.

By the end of 1932, 29 “cooperators” had obtained a charter, subscribed to capital stock, and adopted bylaws. They had also elected directors from all over the county, officers and a manager (all women). The market was increasingly profitable, and it became clear that its needs were outgrowing the temporary outdoor location on Leland Street.   The co-op found its permanent (and current home) in a frame building on Wisconsin Avenue that opened in late 1934, with a crowd of 1000 people in attendance. The monthly rent for members was $125.

Through the diligence of its members, the co-op enjoyed enviable success, but in 1935 the landlord informed them that he had received a viable offer on the property, and he intended to sell it. To avoid being forced to move yet again, the women undertook the bold step of securing a loan to purchase the building and land outright.

It is important to note that at the time the country was still suffering from the severe repercussions of the Depression. Also, in those days, women were not considered safe financial risks.  So, it was not surprising that in September 1935, when Market president Eleanor Waters approached the President of the Baltimore Bank for Cooperatives for a $50,000 loan she was told that the Bank “didn’t believe that a group of farm women could make that amount in a market.”

After multiple failed approaches, Mrs. Waters finally convinced the President of the bank to come and view the market in operation. He arrived unannounced on a Saturday before Christmas, and was so impressed that the loan was granted almost immediately thereafter, and the Cooperative owned the property by the end of the year. Demonstrating its sound operating practices and financial acumen, the Board of Directors was able to pay off the mortgage within 10 years. They also used the market’s profits to help pay off their own mortgages, modernize their kitchens and send their kids to college.

Bethesda Farm Women’s Cooperative in 1935

As the market’s success grew, it gained national attention as the only farm women’s cooperative of its kind in the country. National periodicals such as The Women’s Home Companion and Reader’s Digest lauded its modern safety standards, up-to-date farm practices and solid financial achievements.

The building has changed little over the years, remaining a simple rectangular structure on a concrete foundation – it is now a Montgomery County designated Historic Site. While the market is no longer run exclusively by women, many of the stands are still operated by descendants of original vendors.  The Market strives to protect the sustainability of local growers and producers. Produce stands are only granted to applicants that are Montgomery County-based.

A shopper can peruse products as diverse as meats and poultry, French pastries, flowers, prepared ethnic dishes, vintage clothing and rugs, while listening to live music and enjoying the vibes of downtown Bethesda, new and old.

by Maria Longo-Swiek

We have permission from both Barbara Grunbaum, the producer, and Matt Logan, Montgomery History, to use the above material. Matt would appreciate attribution.

For lots of wonderful photos of farm stands and vendors, we can link to the Market’s Facebook page: