Black Mountain Tailgate Market is stronger than ever after 25 years

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Mary Soyenova, left, and Renate Rikker serve salsa at the Valley Garden Market, which they founded in 1994. Now known as the Black Mountain Tailgate Market, the organization will celebrate 25 years on July 20.

On a summer morning in 1994, Mary Soyenova and Renate Rikker set up tables outside of town hall, where they sold produce to a mere five customers and planted the seeds for a community market. 

Today, the Black Mountain Tailgate Market features dozens of vendors who sell their goods to hundreds of customers every Saturday from early May through the end of October. On Saturday, July 20, when merchants open for business at 9 a.m., the market will celebrate its 25th year.

Wallis Carney gathers a bouquet of flowers at the Black Mountain Tailgate Market on July 13. Urban Farm Girl, which is owned by Bryan and Elaine Young, is one of two dozen members of the market.

However, the first time it was held it was hard to imagine it would grow into what it has become today, according to the ones who were there.

"There was only one tailgate market (North Asheville) in the area back then," said Rikker, who grew up in Germany where the assemblies were commonplace. "When I moved to Black Mountain in 1993, I had lived in many communities where tailgate markets were common. I was amazed we didn't have anything here."

As luck would have it, Rikker's home sat atop rich, fertile soil and she began growing crops. 

"I grew a little bit of everything," she said. "The soil was so good that everything I planted did well."

A hand-painted sign by Mary Soyenova marks the Valley Garden Market, which she launched with Renate Rikker in 1994. The Black Mountain Tailgate Market, as it's known today, will celebrate its 25th anniversary on July 20.

At a loss for what to do with all of the produce, she approached Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce executive director at the time Bob McMurray and asked if I could organize a tailgate market. With the chamber's blessing, Rikker began bringing the idea to life.

She met Soyenova, a Black Mountain resident since 1991, and the two "sat down and started brainstorming," Rikker said. 

They opened the Valley Tailgate Market, featuring a sign hand-painted by Soyenova, at the corner of Montreat Road and State Street. The site, which is now Town Square, was the home of the town hall in those days. 

"It was hard to get people to stop at first," Rikker said. "It probably took three years to get people to even come look at what we were trying to do. It was also tough to find vendors at that time because not many people had home gardens."

They began recruiting vendors and were joined in 1995 by Mike and Linda Kazulen, whose Linda and Mike's Produce still participates in the market to this day. Before long the market was not only adding more vendors, it was attracting more visitors. 

Linda and Mike Kazulen attend one of their first Valley Garden Markets in the mid-1990s. The couple, who operate Linda and Mike's Produce, are still members of the Black Mountain Tailgate Market, as it's known today.
Linda and Mike Kazulen have been part of the Black Mountain Tailgate Market, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary on July 20, since the beginning. They still sell fresh produce from Linda and Mike’s Produce at the weekly market every Saturday.

"We started coming up with ideas on ways to lure people," Rikker said. "We had a salsa contest, an apple pie contest, music from local people."

It took around three years before Soyenova and Rikker felt that the market was catching on and the duo oversaw it in an unofficial capacity for six years. 

"We just made it happen," Rikker said. 

"We were like the spirit of the market," Soyenova added. 

In 2002, under the leadership of Elaine and Harry Hamil, the weekly event became the Black Mountain Tailgate Market. It was moved to the grassy lot between the buildings currently occupied by SunTrust bank and Louise's. The market continued to prosper under the leadership of the Hamils, and in 2007 it moved to the parking lot of the Unitarian Universalist of the Swannanoa Valley. 

The Black Mountain Tailgate Market became an N.C. nonprofit in 2009 after establishing a board of directors and hiring Joan Engelhardt to manage it. First Baptist Church of Black Mountain then-pastor David Rayburn allowed the market to utilize the field on the west side of its property that same year. 

"Through our first four years in that space we only had one single row with 20 vendors," said Engelhardt. "We've almost doubled that at this point and we're at max capacity with our 24 member vendors and the 15 day vendors we have each week."

A vast array of community businesses, from Blue Ridge Pet Supplies to Black Mountain Tire Connection, sponsor the gathering, which will celebrate its past in the July 20 event.  

Renate Rikker arrives at the Valley Garden Market in 1996 with lettuce grown from her Black Mountain home.

"We'll be honoring Mary and Renate, and we've invited Harry, sadly Elaine passed away in 2017," Engelhardt said. "One of our potters has made bowls featuring these 25-year medallions that we would like to give them for helping us get to where we are. We'll also talk a little about the history of the market."

Ice cream, made by The Hop, using produce from market vendors will be available, and vegan options will be included. A free drawing for three baskets made of items sold in the market will take place as well. 

Joe Hallock and Friends, whose namesake has coordinated the market's musical performances for the past seven years, will provide entertainment and will be followed by the Community Band. 

"We are so grateful for the support of the local business community and the residents who come every week," Engelhardt said. "We've formed amazing bonds with so many people in this community over the years, we want to thank them with this event."

The market has grown to include a wide array of locally grown produce, hand-crafted artisinal goods and meat raised by area farmers. The legacy of its founders lives on in the community-oriented atmosphere fostered by its founders, Engelhardt said. 

"It's not only a place where you can come be face-to-face with the people who grow your food, it's also a gathering place for friends and neighbors," she said. "That's what it's been since the beginning. 

Rikker said she was "proud" that the market continued to thrive a quarter of a century later.

"I think it's wonderful that it's continued," Soyenova said. "It was a new idea when we did it and it's become a way of life today."