Ligonier Country Market's executive director keeps operations afloat
Make it, bake it or grow it.
A person doesn't have to spend much time with organizers of the popular Ligonier Country Market to hear that phrase. It's even carved into a sign on the door of the market's Spartan second floor office, a block off Ligonier's Diamond.
Cari Frei, the market's executive director, says the mantra is the reason for its success.
“I don't think people realize what a gem we have here. It's unlike anything else in western Pennsylvania. … We're really fortunate,” Frei said.
Twenty Saturdays a year, from 8 a.m. to noon, bakers, craftsmen, entertainers and farmers from a 150-mile radius gather in a field on the west side of town off of Old Route 30 to sell their wares.
There is fresh produce, flowers, locally raised beef, poultry, cheese, eggs, specialty breads, pastries, honey, maple syrup and hot cooked foods from gyros to omelets.
Also available are handmade crafts including jewelry, purses, pottery, wood items, pet items, dog treats, photographs, candles and soaps.
As the remnants of Hurricane Harvey barreled up the Ohio Valley toward Ligonier on a recent Friday, Frei anticipated the phone calls.
“Is the market still on this Saturday?” would be the question of the afternoon from market enthusiasts and vendors alike.
“Of course it's on unless the field is completely flooded. Our website says we're open rain or shine,” said Frei.
She and board assistant, Kristen Johanson, two of the handful of part-time staff and volunteers who put together the market each week, were in the office joking about Frei donning her usual inclement weather gear in the event of rain: red shirt, red hat, red coat and the red duck boots.
She said the color better enables people to spot her if they have a question or problem.
Frei, who lives in Ligonier, is in her second year as executive director. She was a fan of the market long before she was hired to run it.
“I saw an ad that they were looking for someone and I was intrigued and decided to apply. I always enjoyed it,” Frei said.
Her full-time job is working in the office at the Nut House, an industrial fastener supplier in nearby Latrobe, where she is involved in sales, customer service and communications.
“I wanted to get out, meet people and contribute in the community. And I really always enjoyed the market,” Frei said.
Frei, her husband, Jordan, and their three children often would walk down to the market for lunch and browse.
“As a diabetic … they had a vendor who had this homemade diet soda that was so good,” Frei said.
For more than four decades the market has grown, run by an 11-member board of directors, who also volunteer for various jobs on market days.
It began the weekend of July 4 in 1976 as a means to celebrate Ligonier's history during the nation's bicentennial. Just 12 vendors gathered in the former American Legion barn, also on the west side of Ligonier, which is now occupied by the Valley Youth Network.
Townfathers were so impressed they decided to continue it in hopes of encouraging production of locally grown vegetables, baked and canned goods and hand-crafted items. It eventually grew to 50 vendors in the parking lot of Ligonier Valley High School and then back to the nearby Millcreek parking lot until 2001 when a nearby field, formerly part of the McConnaughey Farm, became the property of the Loyalhanna Watershed Association.
Frei said the market has grown into the largest open air farmers market in western Pennsylvania.
“We finally did a count this year of people coming into the market, and we had just about 3,000 people before we stopped counting. And on one rainy Saturday, we still attracted more than 2,100 visitors. … That's also benefiting the merchants in town,” Frei said.
The market now has the capacity for 147 vendors. Mary Lou Martin, owner of Martin's Specialty Shop in Ligonier, said she couldn't believe how the market has grown.
“People will come in early and go to the market and then come into town and shop. I think it's really helped the merchants in town … and the restaurants too,” Martin said.
The market begins May 20 and ends Sept. 30. There also will be a Christmas Market the Saturday following Thanksgiving.
One must reside within 150 miles of Ligonier to participate — unless your product is very rare such as the wool offered at the PrAiry booth out of Cumberland, Md.
Frei and Johanson occasionally check to make sure vendors' goods, produce and crafts are indeed homegrown or homemade.
“You'd be surprised. … Every farm we've visited are rightfully proud of their work and are really glad to have us,” Johanson said.
Frei noted that since she was hired, she has gone out on about a dozen visits.
“They're proud to be part of the market. It's really phenomenal what local farmers do,” Frei said.
Frei's market Saturday usually begins between 6 and 6:30 a.m. to assist vendors.
She said the market couldn't go on without a “huge assist” from its board members who regularly volunteer their time assisting with parking, manning the information tent and other tasks.
Frei attends area merchant events in the offseason to try to interest some in testing the Ligonier market. She said its popularity wins them over.
“I have yet not had a vendor who comes to check it out not sign up for a second week,” Frei said.
“It really is unlike anything else in western Pennsylvania.”