A look at Salem County’s famous Cowtown Farmer’s Market by Chaney Giordano
There are signs advertising it along all of the major highways through Salem County, New Jersey, and anyone who’s driven through south Jersey to the beach has likely passed it. It’s one of the area’s most treasured traditions and bragged-about tourist attractions. And, when you drive up to it, a 20 foot tall fiberglass cowboy and his giant red cow will be there to welcome you.
Cowtown is not your typical tourist attraction, and Salem is not your typical New Jersey county. Located in the most southwest corner of a state known for industrial complexes, beach towns, and New York City suburbs, my county doesn’t quite seem to fit. Driving through what I lovingly refer to as “the sticks”, you’ll find small towns, rural farm lands, and the oldest running weekly rodeo in the United States. That would be Cowtown.
Located on 1,200 acres of farmland, Cowtown is massive in more than reputation. The rodeo dates back to 1955, and attending it is like stepping over the Mason-Dixon Line into the land of Stetson hats, cowboy boots, and country music. You never knew there were so many cowboys in the north. Unfortunately, the rodeo season doesn’t start up until the end of May, but that doesn’t mean that Cowtown is only for the summer.
The Cowtown Farmer’s market is open year round, twice a week, rain or shine. Currently in its 90th year of business, the Farmer’s Market dates back even further than the rodeo and is, arguably, even stranger.
Driving up to it, what first hits you is the size of it. You would think it was a once a year phenomenon, rather than twice a week. The giant dirt “parking lots” are big enough for hundreds of guests and vendors, and they fill up every time.
It’s hard to give you an idea of exactly what you’ll find shopping at Cowtown, because the answer is basically anything and everything. Me personally, I bought my first knock-off purses there in middle school, a Prada and a Dolce and Gabbana. In college, I went back and got all of the kitchen supplies I needed for my first apartment. One of my sisters goes for essentially all of her random shopping needs, like seasonal house decorations for her house, iPhone cases, spices, and toys for her kids My other sister is really only in it for nail polish and sunglasses, and my mom gets cheap school supplies for her classroom. Men dragged along by their girlfriends and wives can be found perusing airsoft guns and hunting knives. It’s one of those times when the cliché “There’s something for everyone” type of slogan used by stores like TJ Maxx and Walmart actually applies.
But the one thing the entire family, hell the entire neighborhood, can agree on when it comes to Cowtown is that everyone is really there for the food. The food at Cowtown is the stuff of hungry dreams. There’s your typical fair food: pizza, burgers, cheesesteaks, fries, pretzels, hotdogs, corndogs, cheesesteak stuffed pretzels, pizza topped cheeseburgers, and any other combination of those items that might clog your arteries. My family never goes without getting an order of Janet’s deep-fried mini donuts and fresh-squeezed lemonade.
If your willpower lets you make it past the greasy goodness of these more common fan favorites, you might manage to find something more special. Last time I went, I found Bernie’s Island Grille, which was a literal hole in the wall, serving up authentic Jamaican cuisine. Instead of the corndog I’d heard calling my name only five minutes before, I walked out of Cowtown that day with the best jerk chicken I’d ever had.
In fact, throughout my entire last visit to Cowtown, I really saw it through new eyes. Going in with the intention of explaining it to others, outsiders who had never been to Cowtown and might not understand, forced me to see what makes it so special. Instead of just perusing a few stalls while chowing down on donuts, I really looked at everything. Speaking to some of the vendors, I learned that stalls take hours to set up in the morning, and just as long to take down that night, before doing it all again in just a few days or the following week.
At many of the stalls, there were entire families working together. In fact, there were families all over Cowtown that day, and kids weren’t being dragged around against their will like you see at the mall. Kids chased bubbles throughout the parking lots, played with the countless toys at the stalls, and the children of vendors even helped their parents run stands.
Many of the vendors at Cowtown have a real passion they have for what they sell. For 30 minutes, I sat in a stall selling western apparel, listening to a man teach me about different kinds of cowboy boots, all while petting his goat, Doris, who he always brings to the market.
Finding gems like Bernie’s Island Grille, kids chasing bubbles, and Doris the goat hiding throughout the market the pretty much sums up Cowtown. It’s one of those places where that’s easy to write off as not worth your time. Between the knock-offs, the fried food, and the ridiculous finds like the giant golden tiger tapestry I spotted on my last visit, it’s even easy to laugh at it. But Cowtown got me through wanting to look cool in middle school and moving into my first apartment. When I looked hard enough, it challenged me to try new foods and connect with new people. And, most astonishing to me, it repeatedly manages to gather hundreds of people from my tiny county together. for something they can all take pride in. In my community, there are a lot of people living below the poverty line, there is a lot of crime, and there are a lot of boarded up businesses. Cowtown is something that the community has been able to take pride in for the past 90 years.
The Cowtown Rodeo and Farmer’s Market is a caricature of everything you’ve ever thought about redneck, small town living, except for some odd reason it’s in south Jersey instead of Oklahoma. There are way too many people dressed from head-to-toe in camouflage, and you can get a great deal on bootleg movies.
So, should you bother going? That’s really up to you, but I can’t see why anyone would pass up the opportunity to get a year’s worth of school supplies, a tiger wall tapestry, a week’s worth of produce, and an order of chili fries, all before 11 am. If nothing else, it’s certainly an experience.
Chaney Giordano is a Baltimore-based writer, traveler, beachgoer, outdoors lover, and adventure seeker.