About The Market
The Laurel Farmers’ Auction Market began in January 1940, when area farmers elected 10 of their peers to the original Board of Directors to begin the organization. This new cooperative would prove to play a major role in the region’s agriculture, history, and identity. It would also impact the national marketing of one of our country’s major and favorite produce items, the watermelon. The auction’s origins and continued success are a tribute to the power of cooperation. Hundreds of farm families from Delaware and Maryland have survived on the land as a result of the Auction Market.
Laurel-area farmers were shipping trainloads of watermelons at the turn of the century. For example, on August 17, 1905, 45 carloads of melons, with 1,200 melons per car were loaded on a train in Laurel. The watermelons weighed between twenty and forty pounds each. This particular trainload generated $30,000 in cash sales for the many farmers who cooperated to put the load together.
Delmarva producers, then as now, enjoy a competitive freight advantage over growers from more distant regions. In 1926, 2,014 carloads of cantaloupes and 356 carloads of watermelons were shipped by rail from Delmarva. Rail car transportation charges for cantaloupes shipped from Delmarva to New York were $148.70 per car, versus $612.50 from California.
A wholesale produce market existed at the corner of Poplar and Clayton Street in Laurel during the 1920s. It is unclear if this small shed facility was an auction, or simply a buying station for shippers. However, a photograph from that time demonstrates it was active and busy.
That market was replaced during the 1930s by a private auction block, the Laurel Produce Association, controlled by brokers operating in Laurel. Farmers were dissatisfied with the trade practices followed at this auction and charged that the brokers controlled the auction to their advantage. Outside buyers could make purchases only through a local broker who belonged to the auction. Brokers charged fees of five cents per package to the buyer and two cents to the farmer. These burdensome commissions made it less attractive for buyer and seller alike. Moreover, the system of allowing purchases only through member brokers tended to force other buyers to make purchases elsewhere, since they disliked dealing exclusively through the brokers.
The word was spread among farmers in the area about a meeting in January 1940 to discuss the formation of a grower-owned auction market in Laurel. By the end of that first session, a plan was set and ten men were elected to the original board of directors. Those founding members were Merrill G. King, Earl T. Cooper, Harley G. Hastings, William J. Hopkins, Norman O. Dickerson, Fred M. Wright, Martin W. Johnson, Jr., Watson W. Moore, Grover C. German, and Roy C. Dennis. Merrill King was elected President.
These 10 directors then went out to solicit and collect $5 investments in the new cooperative from interested farmers. They attracted 213 people who found the five dollars to become the original stockholders. Who could guess that this act of cooperation and faith, generating seed money of $1,065, would create something so lasting and important to generations of people and families in the region?
In April 1940, the Board hired Carmel Moore as Treasurer and General Manager. Still a legend in Laurel even years after his death in 1978, Moore was known not only for his honest and keen management of the auction, but also as a fair man for both buyer and seller. Moore is generally acknowledged as the man who made the venture work. He would manage the auction into the 1970s.
That first year, 22,000 sales transactions generated sales of $231,887.74. From those beginnings, the Laurel Auction Market now sells over $5 million of produce annually. More than 80 percent of that is in watermelons.
The light, sandy soils, coupled with our warm, summer climate, make the agricultural region around Laurel and the neighboring counties in Maryland an ideal spot for production of high quality, nutritious produce, especially watermelons.
If you would like more information on the history of the market, you can obtain “Where Buyer and Seller Meet – Sixty Years of the Laurel Auction Market,” by Ed Kee, from the Laurel Historical Society or the Southern Delaware Truck Growers Association Office at the Laurel Auction at 302-875-3147.