MARIETTA - Slowly, surely and with the help of a supportive community, the River City Farmers Market is bouncing back from a fire that tore through its venue more than three weeks ago.
The April 29 fire at the Washington County Fairgrounds Rabbit and Poultry building destroyed thousands of items belonging to dozens of local artisans who sold their wares there. Now many vendors are literally starting from scratch when it comes to having products to sell, but it has not stopped them from returning to the market, said farmers market president Gary Smith.
"The Saturday after the fire, a lot of them only had one or two items, but they were still there showing people that we're going to stay and be stronger than ever," he said.
Gale Karcher shows some of his three-dimensional wooden pictures during the River City Farmers Market at the Washington County Fairgrounds. (Photo by Robb DeCamp)
More people than ever have shown up to the three farmers market events held under the grandstands at the fairgrounds and in the area under the roller rink, he said.
To keep up with the overwhelming show of support, some vendors have been putting in extra hours, recreating the wares they lost in the fire.
Many vendors are finding themselves working double time in an attempt to rebuild their stock.
Vienna resident Gale Karcher makes three dimensional wooden pictures, 35 of which were lost in the fire. It was more than $5,000 worth of pictures, he said.
"I've been out here since 3:30 this morning," said Karcher, 68, who was working in his wood shop Monday.
Working diligently, Karcher has recreated about 10 pictures since the fire. Each usually take 10 to 14 hours to craft, he said.
Additionally, Karcher has been overwhelmed by the support of his loyal customers.
"I just got a call the other day from a woman in Vermont who had bought a picture when she was down here visiting, and she called to say how sorry she was," he said.
A few days later, a check from the same customer showed up in the mail, an encouraging show of support, said Karcher.
All told, the vendors' losses likely exceeded the $100,000 mark, said Smith.
To help, a relief fund was set up at Advantage Bank in the name of the River City Farmers Market. People as far away as New Mexico, New York and Texas have contributed, said Smith.
The market was also the target of a special Cash Mob. The event, sponsored by ReStore Marietta, encouraged everyone on the ReStore Facebook page to go spend a minimum of $10 at the market the Saturday after the fire.
While the support is greatly appreciated, it's not all about the money, said Smith's wife, Janet.
Janet, who makes and sells jewelry at the market, lost four tables worth of hand-wired and beaded necklaces, bracelets and more.
"It's really slow, and I have to stop and think that it took me a year to get the stock built up I had. And I can't expect it to happen overnight," she said.
That sort of resilient attitude permeates the market vendors.
Marietta resident Loretta Biehl, who lost around 70 hand sewn purses in the fire, has a particularly upbeat attitude.
"To me it's just a new beginning. I get to start all over with new fabrics and it's kind of exciting," said Biehl, 73, who is proud that the market sells only American-made items.
Biehl worked at record pace last week, sewing together nine of the five pocket quilted purses of her own design.
"I'm trying to do one or two extra a week. I'll probably never build back up to where I was, but that's fine as long as I have what people want," she said.
Building their product base back up has been a slow, sometimes frustrating process for all of the crafters, but no one has a negative attitude about it, said Janet Smith.
"Rome wasn't built in a day," she said.
Marietta crafter Debbie Cunningham feels the same way.
"I've started back up somewhat," said Cunningham, who sells wall hangings, penny rugs, decorative pillows and other sewn goods.
Cunningham works a full-time day job and does not have as much time to craft as some of the retired vendors.
"I may have a little less time, but I stick with it because of the people. Everybody - the vendors, the community - everybody is just sticking together," she said.
Though the fire was a tragedy, it has been positive in a way, said Biehl.
"You get kind of discouraged. The world seems to be so full of bad news. But something like this happens and you're reminded there are so many good people. And I think Marietta is a fantastic community for turning out with full support," she said.
The Washington County Fair Board hopes to have the Rabbit and Poultry Building rebuilt by the time of the Washington County Fair, at which point the market vendors would likely move back in, as per their previous arrangement, said Smith.
Until then, the Farmers Market will take place Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. under the grandstands and in the area below the roller rink at the Washington County Fairgrounds.
Their Strawberry Fiesta will be held during the market June 1 and will feature a variety of strawberry themed foods and treats from the market vendors, said Smith.