2010-09-10 / News

The third market man remembered

By Julia Rogers Hook

As the new South Carolina State Farmer’s Market adapts to its new location and the people of the Midlands begin to flock to the new place for their fresh and locally grown produce, it has been discovered that there was an overlooked employee who along with Addie Jo Thomas and Charles “Bubba” Senn has also worked at all three of the Farmer’s Market locations.

Last week, this reporter wrote a story on the moving of the State Farmer’s Market from Bluff Road where it’s been since its move from Assembly Street more than 50 years ago. At the time I was only aware of two current employees who had been at all three locations. After the

Columbia Star went to press, I discovered that there was one more multi–location employee. Though he started as only a wee tot on Assembly Street, Mickey Gates, today a major player at V.B. Hook, also worked at all three locations.

V. B. Hook & Company was started in the late 1920s by Martin Van Buren “Bill” Hook, and six brothers started another produce company with E.D. “Jake” and James Randolph Senn heading up the aptly named Senn Brothers Produce. They are the two oldest produce businesses on the market. The first State Farmers’ Market moved from Assembly Street to Bluff Road in 1951.

Both businesses quickly grew as prominent produce receivers in the city while continuing their wholesale produce affiliation with the State Farmers Market. As his business grew, Bill Hook left his then partner, Joe Gates, to run the company while Hook himself went off to explore the world of produce across the country and in various parts of the world. It was at that time that Joe’s son came to work at V. B. Hook.

Joe Gates started his son Mickey in the business as a small boy doing menial chores and helping out wherever he was needed. Today, Gates fondly remembers jobs his dad gave him “back in the day.”

“I got to tie up bundles of twine to hang bananas on and then tag them with their weight while they hung from the ceiling to ripen,” he remembered. “I loved everything about the market: the sounds, the smells, all of it. I started there full time as soon as I got out of the army in 1959 and have been there ever since.”

Gates has many stories of opening crates of produce from exotic places and finding surly snakes and huge spiders ready to spring on the unsuspecting packers.

“Uncle Bill (V.B. Hook) bought a banana plantation in Honduras, and back then the bananas were shipped in big wooden crates with slats so reptiles or tarantulas could breathe and survive the trip over,” Gates recalled laughing. “I remember one day when they pried the top off one of the crates, and there was a huge snake wrapped up in there as cozy as he could be. I’ve never seen so many people run so fast or scream so loud at once.”

Today, Gates is still reporting to work bright and early as he said any produce man or woman knows they must.

“You have to get up early to get the best fruits and vegetables to offer the people,” Gates said. “You don’t succeed in this business by being lazy.”

Third generation President of V. B. Hook, Marty Hook remembers Gates being there when Hook himself would come down as a boy to see his grandfather and father at work.

“Mickey always stayed busy back then and he stays busy now,” Hook said. “I can’t imagine him ever retiring.”

Hook said that as the seasons change, the produce changes, but on the market, the people—both the buyers and the sellers—come first.

“We bring in produce from all over, but now that the local farmers are coming to the new market, it’s a great time for people to find things like pumpkins, apples and watermelons as they get acquainted with the new setting,” the president said. “We still have the same quality of fruits and vegetables; we’re just in a newer and better place.”

Gates echoes Hook’s sentiments about the new market.

“Change is good and as long as you have the product and the service, the people will still trust you and come find you. We have all that and more.”

If you ask Gates’ wife Terry what she thinks about the chances of her husband retiring and taking it easy, she merely laughs at the idea.

“He may take vacations and time off,” she said. “But I can’t imagine him ever walking away from the produce business entirely. It’s been his life for too long.”

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