Pike Place Market Half a Century Ago

From 1969 to 1972 my late former husband Fred Sieger and I lived in Seattle, which had been my home town since I was nine in 1954. Fred had moved there at some point after his college days. We had the goal of making money to move to NE Washington and live on the land. Fred was a ceramic artist and potter and involved with Pottery Northwest. I did substitute teaching with the Seattle schools and played music and did crafts at home. The place we rented the longest was in the Mount Baker area, with a nice view of my beloved Olympic mountains and a basement where Fred set up a potter’s wheel. At that time this area was a mostly Black neighborhood–quiet, on a hill, and not far from downtown.

Before I met him Fred had lived for awhile near Seattle’s Pike Place Market. He frequented the Place Pigalle bar and became familiar with the shops, stalls and people of the place. As I was making ceramic bells and doing wood block printing on fabric to make shirts and table cloths, we decided to rent a stall two or three days a week at Pike Place. Neither of us were great business people–Fred hated charging a lot for his work, and I was still rather shy and not experienced at selling. We would get a table on the north end of what was then the main market, and as we persisted finally we ended up at “Flower Row” mostly inside, sloping down from the Pike Street level. On some weekends we sold a fair number of items; we’d drive the Chevy pick-up with our wares downtown and unload in the morning and Fred would go find a parking place if he were not going to the pottery. Weekdays were quite slow most of the time. Around the winter holidays it was really worth selling there, as the Market was bustling.

Flower Row of course was formerly for the flower stalls. Other regulars on the Row were a couple who sold thunderhead agates from Mexico, and several people who ran a very busy stall selling handmade leather belts. Just down at the end of us was the restaurant with windows facing the waters of the Salish Sea (then called Puget Sound). In the winter it was fairly cold on the Row, and kind of lonely in January when there were few shoppers. It happened that Fred and I lived next-door to Irene, who ran Irene’s Cafe in the Market. She was a very kind good-natured woman who had lost her husband and daughter years before in an accident. Her cafe was to us a “greasy spoon,” yet the atmosphere there was friendly and she probably had quite a few regulars. Sometimes Fred and I would sing “Goodnight, Irene” at home thinking of our neighbor.

A project I took up with a friend, Isse Parker, was making black and white photos in the Market and selling them as postcards. We did not get very far on that path, but it was fun. I spent more time sitting at our booth in the Market, as Fred was working a lot at the pottery. He built a couple kilns there as well. I usually substituted three or four days a week and often would spend several days at the Market. Despite dreary winters we kept at it. One year in the busy holiday season the well-known comedian/actor Dom DeLuise came by and bought one of Fred’s mugs. As I was a great fan of his I was delighted. I didn’t mention to DeLuise that I knew who he was, it just seemed more authentic that way.

One person who stands out in my Market memories is Bill Mutch, a very talented street artist who had an apartment nearby. He would often set up his easel and make pen sketches of the people, the shops, stalls, the buildings; I imagine he did quite a good business, as his pictures would have appealed especially to visitors from away. My memories of him are always include his patched vest, his signature, of sorts. Mutch, as he called himself, was my Mother’s age, and he and I would often converse. In earlier days he had been a “Wobblie,” as members in the Industrial Workers of the World were called. The IWW was founded in Chicago by representatives of forty-three groups, and it opposed the American Federation of Labor’s acceptance of capitalism and its refusal to include unskilled workers in crafts unions. The Wobblies had a vision of workers all being in one huge union and forming a social class. They wanted to replace capitalism and wage labor with industrial democracy: worker-owned and managed business, while working in harmony with the earth. They were open to all workers including women and immigrants. From 1949 to 1953 the IWW was classed as “subversive” in the US.

Another person whom I shall not forget was Alex Jackson, a Tlingit wood carver from Ketchikan. I assumed Alex did not need to pay for a booth, and I’d usually find him standing and carving by the railings past the vendors in the north part of the Market. It was sad for me that he had to be outside with no room to do larger carvings. I knew him enough to know he had a hard life in some ways; we often talked–we were friends. Some years later I got a call from Alex when I lived in NE WA, and I do not know how he got my number. When this happened Alex was in distress of some kind. More recently I learned that he had been beaten at times by the Seattle Police–maybe that was what had happened when he called. I regret that I could not offer much help at the time. Alex died at 80, in 2016. It was only in reading about him after this that I found out he had been a survivor of the residential schools and was a Native Rights Activist. After his death he was honored by the creation of Alex Jackson House, established as a residence with 33 units for low-income seniors and seven live work units for senior artists. Alex eventually went blind and yet kept walking daily as usual. A security officer at the Market who saw him most evenings related that after Alex died the market did not feel the same; Alex had been a part of the neighborhood for over fifty years. “This was Alex’s home and this was his path, it will always be his path,” the man said.

Seattle was named for the Duwamish Coast Salish Chief Sealth. Born in 1820, his eldest daughter Kikisoblu spent her later years in a cabin just down toward the Salish Sea from where the upper Market is now. In the mid 1850’s the US government took action on a treaty to transfer Indigenous people off their land onto reservations. Kikisoblu, known as Princess Angeline, refused to leave her cabin. I learned of this years after my time at the Market and now she figures in my mind’s picture of the Market area.

Kikisoblu, Princess Angeline, by Frank La-Roche

There is an informative history of the Market one can access on Wikipedia. The Market opened Aug. 17th, 1907, after Thomas P. Revelle, a newspaper editor and lawyer on city council, proposed a public market on the basis of a city ordinance. In the late 1800’s farmers in the area had to sell produce on consignment to wholesalers; many suffered with this arrangement, and some actually lost money. In 1910 two farmers’ organizations were started and by 1911 the number of stalls had doubled. In the 1920’s steamboats would bring shoppers from the islands to the dock near the Market, and vendors took the goods right to the docks. The area became a social center of the city. A plan was made to expand the market, and farmers further organized.

It is estimated that at the time of the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor during WWII, Japanese American farmers may have made up 80% of farmers in the Market. In the winter of 1942 President Roosevelt had all Japanese Americans sent to internment camps, and some of these farmers lost everything. In 1963 the City Council and some business leaders devised a plan to demolish the Market. Council member Wing Luke called out for citizens to save the Market, and architect Victor Steinbreuck and attorney Robert Ashley went to work toward that end. Architect Fred Basssetti called the Market “…an honest place in a phoney time.” The Friends of the Market was established and was able to get over 10% of voters to sign a petition to keep the Market. This was ignored by City Council. Steinbreuck then drew up a document and encouraged people to give testimony as the City needed to have public hearings on its plan.

In 1969 Friends of the Market gathered people and experts to testify, yet the Council again rejected their plans. More obstacles were met along the path, and then in 1971 the Friends collected signatures supporting the creation of a seven-acre historical district and a commission to oversee the Market. This they were able to get on the ballot in the November election, and voters passed it with a majority of 59% to 41%. After a long struggle the beloved Market had been saved for the public.

I got involved in the move to save the Market, and still have a poster sketch I did about that. This was a time of real passion for those of us bound to have this unique North American market live on and be protected, not be torn down for development! In the 1970’s all the historic buildings were renovated using the original plans. In 1973 the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority was mandated by the state to manage the Market in the public interest. In 2008 the Friends took action to support a 73 million dollar six-year levy for improvements and renovation; voters approved this with a huge majority.

I like to think that the people of Seattle echoed the strong spirit of Kikisoblu Angeline in standing firmly for what their hearts knew was right for their Market–just as she insisted on staying in her cabin years before, in what became the Market area. The story of the Market is an important piece of the story of Seattle, and people, especially those of the area, can appreciate the Market all the more by learning about its history. Fortunately there are many resources for this.

One cannot really give the effect of the Market in words: the cries of the fish sellers tossing fish, the music of all kinds from buskers, the laughter elicited from a wry remark, the scents of flowers, vegetables, the tea spices, calls of seagulls searching for scraps, the seafood, aroma of fresh-baked bread. And there is an indescribable energy that exudes–from excitement, pride, the breath of the place. One is away from the noisy busy streets as one enters the unique community of this place–here now for more than a century. A place where one can interact with strangers and with friendly vendors, tuck into a cafe or dig around in a captivating bookstore. One can go beyond the stalls and look out at the sea, the ships, smell the saltwater. This is where all of humanity gathers in one place, young and old, wealthy and poor, of many accents, ethnicities, ideologies–together, and a special kind of human family forms. It has its own rhythm, is its own dance.

Below is a picture of Alex, and of Mutch and of some of his artwork. Several items Mutch gave to me and Fred with our names on them. Alex and Mutch were figures of the Market just as much as the sellers in the stalls, the vegetable and fish markets and the landmarks. Unfortunately the negatives for most my pictures were lost long ago and I must apologize for the quality of the pictures of pictures I needed to take.

In the summer of 1972 Fred and I moved to our land in NE Washington, and of course it was hard to leave friends, family, and the Market life. I have always felt privileged to have been a part of Pike Place, and I visited it at times when in Seattle. A second round of the Market happened for me later in the 1970’s when I was in Seattle for a brief time. As I am a musician and song writer, I did some stints at the restaurant at the end of Flower Row for tips and lunch, and also at a cafe on Capitol Hill. I also busked a little at pike Place. Since 1986, at the main entrance has stood the bronze pig, named Rachel–a big piggy bank. She brings in $6000 to $9000 a year in donations to the Market. Pike Place is a living entity which lives on beyond the lives of those who have been part of it through its existence. To me the Market includes all these in its spirit; they breathe with the breath of this living organism–one of the true wonders of community creation in North America.

Early Days photo from U of W archives.







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