The Idea: 1979

In the Spring of 1979, several Memphis business leaders began evaluating the feasibility of establishing an "Agricenter" in Memphis. At that time, an "Agricenter" had never been built in the United States.

Ned Cook of Cook Industries, Hamilton "Ham" Smythe, III of Yellow Cab Company, B. Lee Mallory of Memphis Compress and Storage, John Barringer of Barringer Cotton Company, Robert Booth of Commercial & Industrial Bank, and a number of others, began serious planning of what Agricenter could be and what economic importance such a center would have for the Mid-South. A state charter incorporating Agricenter International as a non-profit was filed May 11, 1979. 

Original offices housed in a trailer next to the hay barn.

Original offices housed in a trailer next to the hay barn.

Sufficient planning progress was made in the following six months prompting the formation of a Board of Directors for Agricenter International. This group of business leaders, chaired by Ned Cook, continued the planning process utilizing private funding and vast amounts of volunteer effort. Marketing studies indicated more than a half million agricultural producers would visit Agricenter during its first year of operation. The main offices were located in a temporary trailer positioned next to the Big Red Barn.

 

The Legislation & Funding: 1982

If we are bold enough, there should be nothing like it in the world. - Mayor William N. Morris, Jr.

Shelby County Mayor William N. Morris, Jr. supported the project and appointed the five member Shelby County Agricenter Commission, chaired by Ham Smythe (State Senate Bill 1340 created a charter for forming Agricenter Commission on June 5, 1981).

As a result of the 1982 Memphis Jobs Conference, with the support of Governor Lamar Alexander and the State Legislature, $4.5 million was made available to the Agricenter Commission by the State of Tennessee. The funds were dedicated to building a facility to house displays of agriculture equipment and offices of agribusinesses. The three other projects that came out of this conference were Beale Street, Orpheum, and the Cook Convention Center. At the request of the Agricenter Commission, Shelby County provided strong support of the project as well, making available an additional $2 million in construction funds and the dedication of 1,000 acres of productive farmland which was part of the 4,500-acre Shelby Farms property (approved on November 18, 1982). 

A conservation easement was placed on the property in 2007. 

The first President of the non-profit was B. Lee Mallory (1979-1983), followed by Richard 'Dick' E. Sneddon (1983-1986), John 'Johnny' W. Barringer (1986-1987), William 'Bill' Walker, III (1987-1995), James 'Jim' Boyd Waddlington (1995-2001), William 'Bill' Mayfield (interim 2001), and John Charles Wilson (2001-2016). The current President is John R. Butler. 

Land Use Plans: 1964

The property south of Walnut Grove Road was part of the Shelby County Penal Farm where row crops and hay for livestock were grown until the animal operation was discontinued.  Vocational agriculture teachers and classes, agricultural extension workers, Future Farmers of America, 4-H Club members, Farm Bureau members, and other groups visited the farm annually to look at innovative farming practices going on there (Shelby County Penal Farm, c1946). Tom Hooker was assistant superintendent and farm manager at the Penal Farm for over 50 years and was responsible for row crops grown there such as wheat, corn, sorghum, barley, oat, rye, alfalfa, Timothy, soybeans, and peas. 

Field Day (Shelby County Penal Farm, c1946).

Field Day (Shelby County Penal Farm, c1946).

In 1964, Shelby County Quarterly Court (now Board of Commissioners) asked Shelby County Planning Commission to research potential land uses. A number of plans followed: Bartholomew Plan of 1970, American City Plan of 1972, Rouse-Boyle Plan of 1973, the Garrett Eckbo Plan of 1975, Environmental Planning & Design Firm of Pittsburgh Plan in 1987, Eckbo Plan of 1983, and the Kimbilio "Zoo" Plan of 1990 which was only focused on North of Walnut Grove (Sources: Memphis Heritage Historical Survey, Shelby Farms Concept Plan Oct 8, 1987, Kimbilio Plan).  

The Building: 1984-1986

With funding in place and at least 30% of the space pre-leased, Agricenter Commission selected the firm of Rudolph Jones and Associates of Memphis as the principal architect supported by Lindy and Associates and BWB Associated, Inc. as consultants for the Expo Center. The building architecture was similar in style to the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Garrett Eckbo and Associates, a leading modernist landscape architect from San Francisco, was employed to design the 1,000 acre campus. During the one and one-half years that followed, detailed research and study developed the final construction plans for a 140,000 square foot Expo Center. In May, 1984, W.R. Naylor and Sons Construction Company of Memphis was selected by Shelby County Government as the general contractor. Representative Ron Lollar came on board in 1985 as project manager for construction of the Expo Center and stayed on until 1995 as VP of Administration. The ground breaking was July 26, 1984 and the grand opening two years later on July 26, 1986. 

To learn more about renting the Expo Center, click here

The Market: 1986

Big Red Barn, pre-1986.

Big Red Barn, pre-1986.

The Oswald family still sells six days a week under the name Peach World (Commercial Appeal 6-3-1986).

The Oswald family still sells six days a week under the name Peach World (Commercial Appeal 6-3-1986).

Agricenter Farmer's Market is the oldest continuously operated market in Shelby County. The first farmer's market in Memphis was opened in 1840 at Auction Square and it moved to Market Square in 1850 and others followed. Shelby County Growers Association was formed in 1934 and had a market on Front Street then Washington Avenue known as Shelby County Farmers’ Market.  It moved to Scott Street in 1954 and had 100 stalls open year round (1977 bulletin). There, farmers either sold to retailers who then rented booths at the market to sell to customers directly or to wholesalers who bought by the truckload.  At that time many farmers were bi-vocational and wanted to quickly sell a truckload instead of staying all day with their produce.  By the early 1970's only a small percentage of sales at Scott Street were direct to consumer as most of sales were from wholesalers from out of town (Memphis Business Journal 9-15-1986).

Pouring cement flooring before the opening of the market, pre-1986.

Pouring cement flooring before the opening of the market, pre-1986.

In 1985, there were discussions about how a new type of market was needed.  A firm submitted a proposal to assist in creating a market modeled after Western North Carolina Farmer's Market in Asheville, North Carolina that was year round.  The proposal was for a 50 acre Farmer’s Market with a cooler and packaging facility in additional to the traditional booths (Farmers Market proposal From International Marketing Associates 5-28-1985). 

The proposal was for the red barn to be used for 25-30 produce stands as what Tommy Hill says is a “test of what may be followed by a sophisticated market” (Commercial Appeal 1-6-1986). The Agricenter Farmer’s Market was opened June 2, 1986 (Fayette County Review 6-4-1986).  The market was run by a committee of seven members with many farmers also selling at Scott Street and Agricenter (Memphis Business Journal 9-15-1986).

The first day showcased eight vendors set up on make-shift tables; there were an estimate of 2,000 customers (Commercial Appeal 6-3-1986).  Within the first eight weeks they had about 34,000 customers with an average of 13 vendors daily. The plan was for the market to operate for at least two years before the state built a new market in 1988. The hot weather affected crops and the market closed a few weeks in July but opened back with a second wave of crops (Commercial Appeal 8-21-1986).  The Scott Street Market was still operating as a wholesale market.

This was a pilot project which was projected to continue for two years until a larger market was ready (Commercial Appeal 5-6-1985; 1987 Planning document by Environmental Planning & Design, Pittsburgh).

Penal Farm Dairy that was located near Mullins Station Road (Shelby County Penal Farm, c1946).

Penal Farm Dairy that was located near Mullins Station Road (Shelby County Penal Farm, c1946).

While the red barn was originally used as a dairy barn and possibly as early as 1929, this was not the site of the Penal Farm Dairy which was on the North side of the park, close to Mullins Station Rd (Shelby County Penal Farm, c1946). There is a smaller red barn next to the Farmer's Market which is run by Country Gardens as a nursery.

Rudolph Jones designed an extension to the barn, construction started in 1991, and the ribbon cutting was on April 24, 1992.  

For current hours of the market and to rent the barn for your next event, click here

Agricenter International has been doing field research as early as 1984. Past Directors of Research include: Bill Harris, Jamie Jenkins, John Bradley, & Drew Ellis. The current Director of Research is Dr. Bruce Kirksey who has been at Agricenter since 2009. 

 

For many years the area where the ShowPlace Arena now sits was called the Equestrian Center and had two outdoor rings for horses. Mayor Morris proposed the idea of building an equestrian facility to Bobby Pidgeon, Sr., President of Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Memphis. Bobby raised fine cutting horses and hosted many equestrian competitions. In April 1985, Coca-Cola leased the land with plans to build the arena (Commercial Appeal 5-6-1985). Built shortly after, the grand opening was August 4, 1986. The arena was later given to Shelby County Government and then on January 3, 2005 was passed to Agricenter for operation. 

To learn about renting ShowPlace Arena, click here.

The lakes were built originally for research on feeding trials for striped bass and possibly crawfish. The bass fingerlings were shipped around the country. When the aquaculture trials ended around 2000, the lakes sat idle. They became catfish and game lakes and are currently run by a tenant of Agricenter. For more information on fishing the lakes, click here. Originally called Lake Shelby, Catch'em Lakes was renamed in 2003 by Sue Skaer. The lakes are the site of Agricenter's annual Junior Fishing Rodeo