It’s something less than four acres but the familiar plot of land on Leahy Avenue in Swedesboro is the last significant piece of open land left in Swedesboro, according to Mayor Thomas Fromm, who happily admits that the small square of land is, “my baby.”
That “baby” is the Swedesboro Auction House and remaining grounds, a community hub for area farmers since its construction circa the mid-1930’s. It’s not the spare, unclothed wooden platform building, where flatbed trucks daily deposited crates of produce for bidding, that the mayor favors. It’s not the location, with yard and grounds perfect for development in a growing town.
The mayor focused on different attributes. Fromm said he lived within eyesight of the auction since he moved to Swedesboro and watched all the farm trucks lined along the road. “It was awesome.” The remembered fascination of seeing a daily parade of big trucks shaded his voice with excitement.
“It would start with asparagus. That was king back then, and there’d be pickles, cukes, tomatoes, peppers. Buyers lined up to check out the produce on the farm trucks and it was like a who’s who of the area farm families coming every day. Any old timer you talk to will remember the auction, especially from the Peeltown section, the people in sight of it.
“There was an auctioneer calling out numbers, there was loading on and off the trucks. It was not a quiet operation. It was pretty busy,” he recounted, the excitement still showing.
It is that flavor of a former bustling, farm-centered time, a not-so-long-ago history that Fromm is eager to preserve before it recedes from memories. To do so, he and the borough council, with financial help from the Gloucester County Freeholders and its Open Space Program, purchased the auction grounds from the cooperative of members that owned the auction and buildings with the idea of turning the site into a living history museum.
Progress has been slow as it depends on available funding, but Fromm is dedicated to the plans. “This is the one project in town I try to keep as my baby,” he said. “I was never a farmer but I was a hunter and I was surrounded up here by land and hunting areas. One of the appeals of Swedesboro was you could go any direction and find open lands.”
That is no longer true, as open land has disappeared in favor of housing, industrial, and warehouse development. The cooperative farmers saw the possibility for profit when the land was sold to developers, but chose instead to favor history and sell to the borough.
John Banscher of Gibbstown, a former president of the auction cooperative in the 1970s-80s, still farms and still misses the auction. Like every other farmer currently producing vegetables, Banscher takes his produce either to Philadelphia, to other buyers who contract him, or to Vineland, the produce auction that upended the Swedesboro site.
“There was a lack of buyers at the Swedesboro Auction,” Banscher said. “The buyers started going to Vineland, where it was newer, upgraded. When our auction began there were a lot of farmers. We had 150 active farmers in the co-op at its height (the ‘50’s and ‘60’s) and it was down to 15 at its close.”
Auction activity stopped altogether about 2010 but Fromm and the borough began work towards its purchase around 2006. “In its heyday, Swedesboro Auction attracted produce buyers from many states and Canada,” remembered Anthony Maccarone, another area farmer. “At one time, the ‘50s, the ‘60s, it was the biggest auction in the area,” he said. “Some (harvests) farmers would line up along the streets overnight to have a good spot when the auction opened.
“We’d have buyers for the big chain supermarkets, for smaller markets, for the large canning houses or the little fruit stands. Everyone came here. The buyers would know you and we’d know them. Swedesboro was known for its good farmland and its produce and some people would come just to watch the auctions, to meet the farmers.
“There was an auction every day once harvest began, and everyone knew what season it was, asparagus, zucchini, yellow squash, tomato. They knew when (each vegetable) came to auction,” Maccarone said.
Banscher remembered those days fondly, as well. “In its day, (the auction) had a good atmosphere and honest brokers on both sides,” he said. “I remember one buyer would come with an old, big, tractor-trailer. He’d buy loads of tomatoes to send them up to Canada. We would all help him load his truck. He was a well-respected buyer. Everybody liked him.
“Lots of the buyers became our friends.”
Auction buyers began to frequent the Vineland auction house in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, because its loading dock was bigger, easier to load and to allow the big trucks to maneuver. Where the buyers go, the sellers follow. Banscher and Maccarone both said Swedesboro missed an opportunity to upgrade the local auction in the ‘60’s – ‘70’s when requests by a large buyer who had plans to do an upgrade were denied. “And the borough didn’t have the money to upgrade,” Banscher said.
“It’s sad, to an extent,” he added. “It was a good market in its time. Now it’s depleted. Finished.”
Finished as an auction site, perhaps, but Mayor Fromm and the borough have every intention and a long-term plan to keep the auction as a living reminder of the Swedesboro area’s deep agricultural roots. The few buildings left on site, the auction house, an office building and scale house are likely to be refurbished, he said, but not the loading dock which presented a more expensive problem to make safe. It was demolished in January.
Already, the auction grounds have been used to attract citizens looking for something fun. There was a temporary ice rink put up, that will be available again once a winter cold enough for solid ice arrives. The grounds were host for the first-ever, and sure-to-be-back due to popularity, Food Truck Thursdays last summer. There are picnic areas and early landscaping in progress, Mayor Fromm said.
“The county lent us their landscape architect, and we plan gardens and a passive park, no tennis courts, but a walking trail and gazebos for contemplation.”
Plans also call for a living diorama depicting the farm history of the borough and a 9/11 memorial featuring the two pieces of railway track sent to the borough from New York. The track, each piece about 15 to 20 feet, ran beneath the World Trade Center attacked that tragic September day in 2001.
And, Fromm said, his project may include garden shows, concerts, other entertainment and activities as the site, and the grant money he is seeking, allows.
“We just want it to be a place people can enjoy, just sit and enjoy. And we want to make sure everyone remembers this (area) used to be the economic hub for farming and farmland,” Fromm added.
To adapt a common metaphor, when the plans the borough has sown bear the expected fruit, the Mayor’s “baby”, the last open land standing, will become, ironically, an ongoing tribute to the farming history of an area that has lost a lot of its open farmland.
— By Jean Redstone