When I talk about the wholesale produce market people confuse it with the West Side Market. It has no relationship. The Northern Ohio Food Terminal in its heyday served NE Ohio, the bordering NY states and PA., and sometimes West Virginia including Charleston and boundaries.
A thousand people a day went through that market. It was the centerpiece for Cleveland. When it opened in 1930 people came from all over the country to see how it operated. There were 50-60 warehouses for the wholesale produce sellers. Armour's meats contained one big building for itself including a small fresh fish warehouse. There were 50-60 singular and double warehouses centered in one large building. They were at truck level so that you could roll your loaded product from truck to sidewalk and vice verse loaded the same way.
In that same set up you would find a tomatoes packaging plant. The banana room would be split up into compartments for ripening and storing. Bananas were sold in stocks weighing from 75-90 lbs. They would be unloaded with each stock being lifted by hand and sent down to the banana room by a circular entrance.
The man who unloaded would have to be strong enough to carry the banana stock a short distance and then unload it and pass it off to someone strong enough to accept it. It would be then hung on hangers and gassed to ripen. This was a major operation requiring physical and mental skills.
Ripening tomatoes was also a major process. The tomatoes would arrive half ripe and would be gassed to ripen. Today that is all done with electricity. Gas is no longer used in that process. Going on from there you have a building with about 40 warehouses that are at street level.
This served the smaller wholesale merchants. There is also another building with 8 or 10 warehouses that are used for specialty merchants. It is also a major wholesale grocery in the Armour's meat building.
This is a throwback to what it once was. The terminal ran from 37th and Orange St to 40th - about 3 city blocks. My warehouse was situated at the lower level at midpoint with a large driveway between my place and the Poultry building. I just want you to think of this. All of the chickens and turkeys were shipped live in wooden cages 3-4 in a cage. They were sold live by the pound. All you could here is the cackling and flapping of wings. You can believe me it was a sight to see.
There also was a tremendous building built for cold storage, plus a separate building that manufactured ice. There were other buildings surrounding this entire project that related to food. There was Nickel Plate railroad with 14 tracks of freight cars that encompassed this whole area. This is all the background on what is going to happen next.
Right behind me was a set up for farmers to bring in their produce. This was separate covered building with a truck level platform. The farmers brought their produce to sale 3 days a week. Market opened at 1 pm closing down about 10-11 am for clean up.
One day when I had some spare time I was told that there was a three card Monte card game going on in back of one of these high top buildings. I thought it would be fun to look on. These games are always interesting because there is always a slight of hands involved. I decided to look. As I watched from my vantage point I saw 8 or 10 men standing around watching a man flipping his cards back and forth he cried out "pick the one that I put away and all this money will be yours".
He moved those cards so easily it sure looked like a sure thing. There were a number of long distance truck drivers in that group. They were also known to carry large sums of cash personally. I looked and saw one black man standing next to a truck driver who was playing the game. The black man would nudge the driver. Choose that one he would say. He chose the right card three times in a row gathering up a large sum of money.
Remember it was the black man who nudged him advising him which card to choose. On the fourth go round the black man advised him again to pick the next card. This time he chose wrong losing a pile of money. The trucker became so angry he sucker punched the dealer hammering him blow after blow until he ran away. All of the on lookers and participants ran off afraid of what had taken place.
Since I was standing on top of the area looking down I also didn't wait - I took off as well. Going home just an hour later as I'm driving my vehicle. I happened to look out of my window and saw the black man and another participant of the three card game riding in the same automobile. These were the Shills. A Shill is there to help the dealer by becoming a sort of friend.
This is only one of the stories that took place in that world. The Food Terminal was a living breathing instrument showing you the direction that might take place. The Shills game was played over and over again and many of participants went home barehanded.
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Cleveland Seniors columns