An inside scoop on a business opportunity and a bit of educated speculation on the future of domestic juvenile shoe production led young William Rohrbach toward becoming a co-owner of the famed Green Dragon Farmers Market and Auction.
The Green Dragon, an Ephrata mainstay, marks its 90th anniversary of operation Friday. Rohrbach was just 22 when he got involved with the business.
In 1961, Rohrbach had just graduated with honors from Goldey-Beacom College in Delaware and was looking to begin his career in business.
His uncle, John Rohrbach, a lawyer, had learned that the owners of the Green Dragon Market were looking for buyers. If the younger Rohrbach was interested, he and his Ephrata High School classmate Larry Loose, had an opportunity to step in as the new owners.
Rohrbach, now 82, says his father Karl Rohrbach, president of the Ephrata Shoe Co., gave him some advice.
“He told me the future of the shoe business in this country is limited because we were getting so many foreign shoes shipped in,” says Rohrbach, a lifelong Ephrata resident. “He said, for that reason, he would lean toward me getting involved with the Green Dragon.”
It was a smart decision. The company was officially dissolved in 2003, according to records from the Department of State, and closed in the years prior. Rohrbach, his wife Sandra and their children bought Loose’s share of the business in 2007.
Today, Rohrbach is president of the Green Dragon, and running the market is still a family affair. He splits ownership with his wife, Sandra, and three children: daughter Sally Rohrbach Bushong, 60, who is also vice president, and sons John Rohrbach, 58, and Rob Rohrbach, 52.
“My brothers and I think a lot how different our lives would have been if he’d chosen to go into the shoe business instead of participating in this huge risky business venture which turned out to be the best decision ever,” says co-owner Bushong.
In its 90 years of operation, the Green Dragon has seen dramatic changes in the retail sector, from the rise and fall of mini malls to online giants like Amazon.
The new shopping centers were a concern when Rohrbach and Loose took over the market in the early ’60s, but their worries were quelled by the sage advice of their veteran manager Dave Burkholder – also known as the Market Master.
Green Dragon Market, Lancaster Central Market voted among best in nation by USA Today readers
“He was a lot older than us. He was in his 60s or 70s,” says Rohrbach. “I know exactly where he was standing here in the office when he said, ‘They can build all the shopping centers that they want, and they will never hurt the Green Dragon. The Green Dragon will remain.’ And he was so right.”
There’s no doubt the Green Dragon has remained popular; it was voted second best farmers market in the country by a 2021 USA Today’s 10Best readers’ poll. (It’s nominated for 2022, too, and results from this year’s poll will be released March 11, the market’s 90th anniversary.)
Rohrbach, his wife and his daughter sat down for an interview a few weeks before the market’s 90th anniversary to share some memories – good and bad – of their time at the Green Dragon.
The most iconic aspect of the Green Dragon is the dragon itself. An early owner of the market, which was originally called the Farmers Market and Auction, adopted the colorful moniker of an Atlantic City speakeasy. The dragon became a recognizable and much-loved mascot of the market – and eventually made its way atop the sign that overlooks Route 272.
“He’s famous,” says Bushong. “Everybody knows that sign.”
The dragon began as a parade float.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, we used to put a float in the Ephrata Farm show parade,” says Rohrbach. “We made a dragon one year and we put him on a wagon in the parade. After the parade was over, I said, ‘Well why don’t we put this dragon on top of the sign?’ We had the dragon waterproofed and he’s still up there on top of the sign.”
“We love that dragon,” says Bushong.
The Green Dragon, with its carnival-like atmosphere, has its share of colorful vendors with names like Biff’s Tools to Wickey Wackey Wicker World. But Rohrbach remembers one vendor from the early ’60s who sold a strength potion from a tiny bottle.
“We used to have a guy here and his name was Mighty Adam – and he did weird things,” says Rohrbach. “He put nails in his mouth and chewed them. He’d take a horseshoe and bend it and make it straight. He sold some type of medication. Like, ‘See what it did for me folks? Why don’t you buy some?’ You don’t see that kind of thing today, but back then that was one of the big things. Nowadays you couldn’t do that.”
A vendor who, for once, wasn’t joking.
Rohrbach recalls another colorful character who sold leather goods and was always cracking jokes.
“We decided we’re going to build another 23,000-square foot building,” says Rohrbach. “We got a contractor and we started to build this thing. They decided they are going to work on the new building on a Friday while the Green Dragon is open. Well, if I knew later what I knew now, I would’ve said no.”
Rohrbach says he was tabulating totals from the hay and straw sale in the office when he heard a rap on the window.
“I opened the window – and his name was Joe – I said, ‘Yeah Joe, what’s on your mind?’ And he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to tell you, your new building just collapsed. And I said, ‘Joe, you tell funny stories, but now let’s get serious.’ He said, ‘No, I’m serious, they were setting the trusses on the new building and they started to go and the workmen got off the walls and they got all the people away.’”
Rohrbach says about three quarters of the building that became Building 6 collapsed like dominoes, but nobody was hurt. The contractor had insurance and, when they rebuilt the building, they reinforced the walls with rebar.
“When the new building finally got built, Joe was one of the vendors in it. He liked that,” says Rohrbach. “Everything was a joke and I figured this was too. He said, ‘No, I’m sorry, this is not a joke.’”
Every Friday, a straw and hay sale, a household goods and furniture sale and a small animal sale take place at Green Dragon. A livestock sale that featured dairy and beef cattle was held at the market until 2014 when a devastating fire destroyed the auction building and caused $700,000 in damages, according to a 2014 LNP | LancasterOnline article.
Rohrbach has fond memories of the livestock auctions.
“One day they were selling dairy cattle and I was watching,” says Rohrbach. “My dad comes walking in, and right away, the auctioneer recognized him. My dad put up his hand and said, ‘Hi Henry’ and Henry (the auctioneer) said, ‘Sold to Karl. Congratulations, you just bought a dairy cow.’ He was looking for bidders. It was a joke, but it was funny at the time.”
But the memory that will be forever burned in Rohrbach’s mind was the fire that ultimately ended the livestock sale at Green Dragon.
After a busy Friday, Bushong, her husband, Rohrbach and his wife drove 130 miles south for a late-summer weekend at Bushong’s vacation home in Lewes, Delaware. Around 2:30 a.m., Bushong received a phone call alerting her of a massive fire at Green Dragon.
“I did not want to go in and tell my father that,” says Bushong. “That was a moment standing outside his door. This business is his life. I could hardly bring myself to tell him.”
Bushong says her brother Rob, who lives near the Green Dragon, later told her the sky in the direction of the Green Dragon was glowing a terrifying shade of orange.
“We got back at around 6 o’clock in the morning, and by that time, I think there were 20 fire companies here,” says Rohrbach.
The livestock barn, which also included the Peaceful Valley Amish Furniture store, was destroyed. No animals were hurt, according to several newspaper articles. The fire companies were able to prevent the fire from spreading to the office which was located a mere 20 feet away.
A new building was later constructed, and Peaceful Valley Amish Furniture still operates a store at the market, but Rohrbach decided that would be the end of the livestock auction at Green Dragon. The whole site was reduced to ash. The only thing that remained was a small sign with an inspiration quote on it that hung in the Peaceful Valley section of the barn. It read: “The past is behind us, learn from it, the future is ahead, prepare for it, the present is here, live it.”
The dragon is still breathing
The Green Dragon survived the mini malls, the rise of online shopping, it was deemed an essential business during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bushong, Rohrbach’s daughter, says there’s continued interest from businesses looking to sell their wares at the market.
“We have a long, long list of people waiting to come here and be a vendor,” Bushong says. “I think that speaks volumes for how well we’re doing.”
Rohrbach says that some of the crowds that shopped at the market towards the end of last summer were among the biggest ever.
“I keep thinking this market is 90 years old and it’s going strong,” says Rohrbach. “We had a phenomenal year last year. I keep thinking back to Dave Burkholder saying, ‘The Green Dragon will always be here.’”
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