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At 100, Aurora’s market is farm family tradition

Kate Wiltse picks flowers her families farm Maple Park Thursday August 9 2012. The Wiltse family has been farming same

Kate Wiltse picks flowers on her families farm in Maple Park on Thursday, August 9, 2012. The Wiltse family has been farming the same land in Maple Park for over 40 years and have been selling their produce for just as long at the Aurora Farmers Market which celebrates it's 100th anniversary this year. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Farmers Market

When: Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to noon Saturday; ceremony at 10 a.m.

Where: North River Street Park, 300 block of North River Street

Several items and activities will be offered for free at Saturday’s Centennial Celebration

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Updated: September 11, 2012 6:15AM

For a few families, fresh sweet corn and tomatoes at the Aurora Farmer’s Market is a summer treat.

For the Wiltse and Theis families, it’s a tradition as old as the 100-year-old market itself.

“My mother and father both grew up on farms, and their parents, and their parents before them,” said Patty (Wiltse) Marco, between freshening flowers and helping customers behind the table at Wiltse’s Farm Produce at Wednesday’s Farmers Market on Aurora’s West Side. “We’re fourth-generation veggie farmers.”

And those four generations have spent every Saturday for the past 100 years waking up early, packing up the farm, and bringing their produce to Aurora.

“We grew up doing this,” said Marco. “We hated it, but we didn’t know how good an education we were getting.”

Mackenzie Theis is still growing up, but at Wednesday’s market, she was managing the Theis Farm II stand herself, with the help of a family friend.

“I’ve been coming here for 15 years, so since I was born,” said Theis.

Her mother, Barbara Pondelick, took over the Theis farming operation about four years ago, and Mackenzie and her two brothers often pitch in with planting, harvesting and selling.

“I think it’s a fun experience. You get a lot of life skills,” said Theis. “You’re talking to people all day long, doing math.”

The 15-year-old is also learning the science of growing food, when many of her classmates can’t tell a kumquat from a cucumber. At Wednesday’s market, Theis explained how her bell peppers grew to the size of a softball in the middle of a drought.

“It’s been so hot, we really have to water things a lot.” She said the farm has trucked in water, 2,000 gallons at a time to irrigate. “And if you’re using city water it’s not as good. We bring in water from a creek.”

Both farm families will tell you it’s been a tough year, officially the hottest and driest since Mayme Theis — farming matriarch of both families, actually, since the Theises and Wiltses are related — started farming near the now non-existent town of Weston in the early 20th century.

“Green beans, we usually have an abundance, but they’re hurting this year,” said Marco. “Strawberries we didn’t even have a crop. That’s never happened.”

But if there’s one thing that can brighten the spirits of a farm family in the middle of one of the hottest and driest summers on record — other than rain — it’s a party.

On Saturday, the Aurora Farmer’s Market will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Farmers who have supported the market for the past 100 years will be honored with a brief program, which will also include a ceremony showcasing the significance of the market.

Vendors will feature sales and giveaways of fresh produce and artisan items from watermelon agua fresca to fresh heirloom tomato salsa. The Gypsy Trio of Aurora natives John Papadolias, David Moulthrop and Ben Smith will perform vintage string jazz. Aurora Animal Control will host a Meet & Sniff with adoptable dogs and cats on site.

And the Aurora Historical Society will be giving away an Aurora Basket of Historical Treasures and host a display on the history of Aurora as the city celebrates its 175th anniversary.

The city is a great place to be, said Patty, for both market-goers and the farmers themselves.

“The people in Aurora are different,” said Patty, who said that the diverse ethnic communities appreciate fresh shopping and understand traditional food techniques. “They know what they want. They know how to prep food. I can bring in certain things and know they’re going to sell.”

She said the crowd of shoppers really distinguishes Aurora — the state’s longest-running farmers market — from more en vogue French markets around the suburbs.

“People are more open to freezing and canning and food prep,” she said. “The French Markets and things, that’s not Aurora’s culture.”

Still, while Marco said she’s proud of the market tradition, it can be an onerous task, “one of the hardest things you can do.”

Both the Wiltse and Theis families start harvesting the day before market, then wake as early as 5 a.m. on Saturday to get the last few veggies that must be picked the same day, and then they truck their products out from their Maple Park farms.

“We do these (markets) because we like our customers,” said Marco. “We’ve been here a while. There’s a lot of people that say they’ve seen us grow up.”

As for whether the farms will continue to grow with the families, that depends.

Marco’s 15-year-old nephew, Nick Mish, was helping at Wednesday’s market stand, but he’s still ambivalent about a career in agriculture, and sees the farm as a backup career.

“It’s OK,” Mish said. “It’s not boring. It’s not fun. It’s right in the middle.”

Mackenzie Theis, though she hasn’t settled on a career path either, has a little more enthusiasm for the farm.

“It gets old sometimes,” she said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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