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History of the Ligonier Country Market

This was written by our Board member, Linda Sinemus for a recent ceremony honoring our Market founders.

Ligonier Country Market: 1976 to Today

The year was 1976, the year of our nation’s festive Bicentennial celebrations, and area leaders felt a “Country Market” would be a great addition to the slate of activities planned in Ligonier.

John West of Ligonier, Jeanne Witman of New Florence, Thomas Hughes of Derry and several others joined together to form a Board of Directors to oversee the first Ligonier Country Market, held on the Fourth of July weekend. That first Market was loosely assembled in the American Legion barn, currently occupied by Valley Youth Network. Twelve vendors showed up to sell freshly baked homemade pies, local farm-grown vegetables, and handmade crafts from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. A community table allowed anyone else to sell extra produce from their in-town gardens. 

The Market was so well received that first season, the board decided it should be an ongoing entity. On March 4, 1977, Country Market at Ligonier was established as a not-for-profit corporation in Pennsylvania. The bylaws of that first board stated that the Market was established “to encourage increased production of locally grown vegetables, fruits, baked and canned goods and to encourage creativity in the production of local handcrafted articles.” It also was created “to encourage area residents and visitors to appreciate and purchase locally handcrafted articles and locally grown produce in season.” Those words still ring true, as Ligonier Country Market has grown into the largest open air farmers market in Western Pennsylvania that is a producer-only market. The mantra is “Make It, Bake It, or Grow It,” a non-negotiable point still stressed to all vendors.

From its humble beginnings in 1976, the Market grew in both the number of vendors and in its physical layout.. Over the years the Market moved several times to accommodate its growth. From the original site at the American Legion Barn, it moved to Ligonier Valley High School in 1981 and then back to the (then Millcreek) parking lot in 1990 where it had first started in the adjacent barn. Around 2001, the property across the road changed hands from the McConnaughey family farm to the Loyalhanna Watershed Association, which offered a much needed larger space to accommodate the Market’s continued growth. At that time the vendor count had grown to about 50, still a mixture of farmers and crafters.
As the Market grew, it became clear that the Board could not handle the day-to-day operation on its own. It enlisted the help of paid Market Managers to help settle in the vendors on Saturdaymornings, to keep records of the vendors’ contact information, and to handle customer questions or complaints. The first Market Manager was Evelyn McNall, who served faithfully at every Market until 2001, when longtime Market vendor and Board Member Jim Mikula took over the reins. Jim served the Market well during its explosive growth period for 10 years until 2012, when Angela Iezzi was hired to take on the much larger role as Market Manager in a more tech savvy world. It also became clear that a Board Assistant position was necessary to coordinate all the paper work concerning vendor applications, payments, board meeting minutes and general bookkeeping. Kristen Johanson was hired to fill the Board Assistant position. In 2015, The Board re-examined the position of Market Manager and decided to give more autonomy to the person leading the Market and created an Executive Director position. In early 2016 they hired Cari Frei as the first ever Executive Director of the Ligonier Country Market. Today Cari is the face of the Market and has assembled a staff of parking attendants, two site operations coordinators as well as a Mascot, Daisy Mae which help her keep everything in order.

Ligonier Country Market entered the digital age by joining the internet in 2003 with a very simple web page. It got a re-make in 2009, along with the addition of a Facebook page. Another update in 2012 made a big difference in the look and functionality of the website. The Market again improved its web presence this year with a brand new website and a user friendly mobile site. Check or our Face Book page to see what is happening this season. We are also now on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.

The Board did some research around 2006 that led to the conclusion that they needed to attract younger customers. They were afraid that the customer base was aging and would lead to less traffic for the vendors .The younger customers we did have wanted to eat food on site, so “ready to eat” food vendors were recruited to serve the patrons. Today, you can literally eat your way through the Market, having freshly brewed coffee, breakfast sandwiches, hamburgers, gyros, Pierogies, grilled pizza, and ice cream and pies for dessert. The many other options are too numerous to mention. Those younger customers also had children in tow, so the Special Features committee began offering activities for children. More and more customers found out about how great the Market experience was and started coming regularly every Saturday morning. Now the Market boasts musical performers almost every week along with children’s activities in the Children’s Garden plus a third Special Features tent dedicated to community organizations.
By 2008 the Market was attracting over 2,000 visitors each week and had 100 vendors for them to visit. But the growth didn’t stop there. From 2008 through 2013, the Market expanded to a total of 175 available vendors and at the height of the Market season attracted more than 2,000 patrons weekly. Today there are generally about 130 vendors every week and visitors number 3,000 or more. That is due to many factors such as the addition of new, unique vendors, an expanded Special Features program that introduced music more often, a beautification project executed by Penn State Master Gardeners and the opening of the Children’s Garden in 2012. Also back in 2009, the Market started its wildly popular Christmas Market, held annually on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to kick off the holiday gift giving season. It has been held at the Ligonier Valley YMCA for the last 5 years and before that at the Millcreek Barn and at the Ramada.

Also contributing to the growth of the Ligonier Country Market was an increased public awareness about eating locally. “Locavores,” people, who seek out locally produced foods, were becoming more and more prevalent around the country, and Westmoreland County was no exception. Being able to talk to the farmer who grew the corn you are buying for dinner or who raised the chickens that laid the eggs was appealing to people who were turned off by the mass merchandisers and supermarkets selling foods from China. In addition, there had been many health scares with salmonella and E. coli outbreaks from produce grown in Mexico. People felt safer buying local foods, and realized that they tasted much fresher and were better for you than foods trucked across the country. And because less gas is burned to get that food to you, it is a greener way to shop. Many people now embrace this environmentally friendly philosophy.

More and more people continue to be drawn to Ligonier Country Market every week of the season. Not the least reason is the social experience. People see their neighbors, friends from high school, relatives, or long-lost friends and catch up with each other while enjoying fresh air and good food, music and unique crafts. Sometimes it is difficult to walk down the center aisle with so many people stopping to have their conversations and impromptu exchanges. None the less, it does not deter families and friends who come together to enjoy a casual, festive atmosphere, and in the process help support local farmers, artisans and entrepreneurs. This is consistent with the intent of the Market when it was established 42 years ago. Come and see for yourself every Saturday from 8 am till Noon, rain or shine.