It was Freedom 55 last summer at the Burlington Farmers Market this summer.

Ben Benner, who operates Greenwood Farms, a 23-acre growing establishmen in Millgrove, has had tables at the market every year since it started in 1959.

Benner, who will be 76 in October, recalls the market’s first year, operating out of the parking lot at Central Arena on New St.

“I was selling tomatoes by the bushel,” he said. “In those days I only charged $1.50 a bushel. She asked me how much it would be if she took everything I had. I told her to come back in the evening. She took all 25 bushels and I gave them to her for $1 a bushel.”

‘Fergie’ Holland was a prime choice to manage the market. After retiring from Dofasco at the age of 51, he and his family moved to Kelowna, B.C., where they had a rare peach tree, as well as an apple tree and grape vines right in their own backyard.

The Hollands eventually moved back home and this year ‘Fergie’ decided to erect street signs at the market, which now is located on the south parking lot of Burlington Mall.

“That’s why I named his street Classic Lane, in reference to the Benner family’s longevity,” Holland said. “That, and because Dilly Coleman, another longtime vendor, always plays classical music.”

For the most part, it’s been good year at the market. The peaches and corn are plentiful and reasonably priced. But wild blueberries, usually brought in from the Sudbury area are scarce. They are now being transported from Quebec and that has pushed the price up to $16 a quart.

While folks shop, the smell of peameal bacon frying wafts through the air as volunteers work in the snack bar. The $4 peameal bacon on a bun is the most popular and has become so even for gamblers gathering there to take the bus to the casino in Niagara Falls.

Aalia Kesari, a musician who has osteogenesis imperfecta and was born with 28 broken bones in her body, is a fixture at the market as she strums on her guitar and sings popular tunes. A native of Montreal, Kesari later moved to Hamilton and has been charming passers-by for the last few years.

Kesari is only 4-foot-2 and sits in a walker. Following one of many hospital stays she endured as a child, she woke up to find a guitar beside her bed and has realized her dream of becoming a singer.

Al Sumanis, alias ‘Al the Accordion Man’, who performed at the market for many years passed away earlier this year. Sumanis was one of the founders of the Hamilton Accordion Club

“Boy, he was great,” Holland said. “I could always name the tune he was playing when I walked by.”

Benner got his start at the age of 20 in 1960 on the farm his father William owned on Greenwood Drive. He bought the Millgrove property after the City of Burlington expropriated 4.2 acres of family land to make way for Greenwood Park. The sandy soil there made it perfect to grow tomatoes and head lettuce.

The Burlington Nelson Lions Club opened the Farmers’ Market in 1960 and has since merged with the Burlington Central Lions Club. A recent study conducted on the market showed that it brings in about $5 million in sales to the community.

During the school season, teachers bring their students there to learn about produce and talk to the vendors.

The Lions also are celebrating their 90th anniversary. In 1925 it was the third Lions Club in all of Canada to be formed. The net proceeds from the market go to support community projects.

The market is open on Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Fridays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

At peak season in August and September there are usually about 40 vendors on site from the Burlington area, Niagara region and southern counties (Simcoe, Waterford etc)

Over the summer Holland has accumulated a lot of car keys, glasses, sunglasses and other items in the market’s lost and found box. They can be retrieved by their owners by coming to the snack bar or by calling either 905-617-1227 or 905-975-1777.

Written by: Denis Gibbons

John Best had enjoyed a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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