Courthousery has been my main project for a big chunk of the past decade. That’s why this blog exists! Occasionally, though, I get stuck or bored and look for something else to bide my time in order to keep my bipolar disorder at bay. That’s what had happened when I started something called Abandoned Marsh in 2017.
My entire readership probably knows about Marsh, the regional supermarket chain founded by twenty-two-year-old grocery wunderkind Ermal Marsh in 1931. After his death in a 1959 plane crash, control passed first to Ermal’s brother Estel, and then to Ermal’s young son Don. By 2006, the company had grown to 69 Marsh supermarkets, 154 Village Pantry convenience stores, 38 LoBill Foods stores, eight O’Malia Food Markets, two Arthur’s Fresh Markets, two catering companies, three florists, and a restaurant under Don’s stewardship. That year, the company sold itself to a private equity firm.
My grandpa Charlie started working for Ermal Marsh in 1952, unloading railcars during a frigid winter holiday from high school. Imagine his surprise at being given Marsh’s new vanilla ice cream during his chilling break times- the company had just installed their own freezer in the basement of the chain’s second supermarket. Nevertheless, he stuck with it. There are worse things than free ice cream, after all, and Grandpa retired in 1998 as the company’s superintendent of warehouses. Though he had an office at the company’s cushy new headquarters in Fishers, Grandpa preferred to be among his workers at Marsh’s distribution center on Franklin Road. In fact, here he is in his office there. He pulled all-nighters during blizzards and snowstorms to make sure product got to the stores and that his workers were okay. Charlie Swander was a stand-up guy.
In 2017, I was sitting in the Burger King drive-thru one day during a hiatus in my courthouse project when I noticed the empty Marsh on Bethel Road in Muncie. A store that opened in 1980 to major fanfare before limping to a close in 2014 under one of Marsh’s discount banners, the building presented a stark image, bisecting the gray parking lot and sky almost like a cigar band. I took a photo, and thus began Abandoned Marsh, my project to document the stores jettisoned by the company since its 2006 private equity purchase.
This isn’t intended to be a big history of Marsh Supermarkets or a latent send-off for my grandpa, but 2017 was a big year for Marsh. It filed for bankruptcy! Later that summer, its 44 remaining stores were sold or closed. A few years beforehand, word had come out that Don Marsh -far from the homespun, folksy Hoosier he professed to be- had misspent millions in company funds before the 2006 sale, jet-setting with mistresses, fishing and hunting with company executives in Alaska, and renting back his resort villas to the supermarket chain, among other offenses. He was sued and ordered to pay millions back Sun Capital Partners. No wonder Grandpa -extremely principled- chose to stay away from the Fishers office. I would have too.
2017 meant more to me than Marsh’s foibles. Grandpa was dying of cancer, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He and I had always connected through basketball -he played for Yorktown and I played for Cowan, and he took me to the YMCA for years after school, watching me hoop with other kids and playing horse with me. It wasn’t until later that I got interested in Marsh, but Grandpa’s illness wasn’t what nudged me to start the Abandoned Marsh project. I did think of him constantly while I did it, though. I even sent him a couple images.
“Hi grandpa, Wanted to say it was fun to hang out today. I enjoyed spending time with you and I’m glad to see you doing better and making progress. I wanted to send you a couple of the Marsh images I’ve been working on. I’ve done almost forty. The first is in Warsaw, with the old sign we talked about today. Hope to see you soon, Ted.”
“Thanks Ted. The Marsh images are very good. I enjoyed your visit and we need to look through more of my boxes if I can find them. Drop in any time. Have a good week. Grandpa.”
That email conversation occurred just months before Grandpa died in late December. He didn’t live long enough to see two former Marsh stores in town reopened under longtime rival Kroger’s Pay Less banner.
Marsh permeated my early days. When I worked in marketing for the Ball brand during my early twenties, all the food we used for the photo shoots I directed came from the Muncie Marsh store on Tillotson, dumped into jars and shot in front of a fake window. My Marsh Kid’s Club membership got me a free cookie with every visit, and in third grade I won an essay contest sponsored by the company that put all of us winners up in the J.W. Marriott hotel in Washington, D.C. for a weekend. Nepotism? Hardly. Here’s a letter to the editor my mom encouraged me to write that appeared in the January 23, 2000 edition of Muncie’s The Star Press, under the acutely stupid headline of “Essays are Fun.”
In 2017 I’d just taken a photo of the old Marsh on Bethel while formulating ideas for a new project. Since their sprawling nature would present some logistical issues in chronicling with photos, I decided to roll with the “cigar band” format of abandoned Marsh stores, while choosing to recreate them graphically. At first, I decided I was going to buy reams of construction paper, dissect it with an X-Acto knife, and meticulously arrange the shapes into forms that represented each store, sort of like a two-dimension set of tangrams. But then it occurred to me: why bother to go through all that mess of hand-eye coordination when I could use a computer with cut and paste built in? I ended up using Adobe Illustrator for what ballooned into a 72-image collection of abandoned Marsh supermarkets, all presented in scale with one another in roughly the same format. I did end up with some reference photos I took, and some friends in far-flung towns graciously supplied me with some as well. Most of the project, however, relied on Google Street View.
Originally I thought about using the project to highlight the issue of food deserts, but I decided against it. To my eye, Marsh stores built from 1979-1996 or so had really distinctive architecture, designs that were uniquely scaled to each community but consisted of similar elements. That’s what I wanted to highlight. I was the kid building supermarkets out of wooden blocks during recess in Kindergarten, after all. The project, as realized, was extremely on-brand.
In the present day, I realized that enough time had elapsed for some of the old Marsh stores to be home to new businesses, and that it’d be fun and easy to resist my old project with updated graphics. I did. I was lazy this time, I admit- I put the .ai files into Photoshop and just went over the top of the original art. But I also made a conscious decision to avoid the use of any living brand or trademark. That’s why the ALDI logo, for example, is a bar graph. Here’s some of what I came up with. You can use the slider bar to go between my original 2017 images of the abandoned stores and my 2021 depictions of how they appear today.
The first Marsh I did was the Bethel location, a 50,000 square foot supermarket built in 1980. If you’ve ever Today, it’s been purchased and converted to an Affordable Family Storage outlet. Bob’s Discount Furniture in Castleton was originally a Marsh of this style, and I must say that the Muncie building is sharp, though the company behind it can’t seem to fixate on a specific shade of green.
This 40,000 square foot Marsh, built in 1977, featured a huge, triangular glass atrium that made it perfect for a Fresh Thyme to move in.
Prior to their angular, brick designs, Marsh supermarkets took a more typical architectural approach. Built in 1969, Muncie’s Marsh “X-Tra” at the corner of E. McGalliard Road and Broadway Street included a Marsh branded drug store. Today, most of the building is home to a Planet Fitness. The old drug store portion is vacant.
My favorite Marsh store design was the one at Nora Corners at the southeast corner of E. 86th Street and the Monon Trail. Built during the 1980s, the store is unrecognizable in the present day, now home to an ALDI and a Total Wine liquor superstore.
During Marsh’s bankruptcy sale, a Kroger subsidiary called Topvalco purchased Muncie’s largest supermarkets, one each at Tillotson and Wheeling avenues. Both were rebranded as Pay Less Supermarkets, a brand Kroger acquired from the Contos family of neighboring Anderson in 1999 and has used across central Indians. Internally identical to any other of Kroger’s stores, this Tillotson Pay Less got some external rehabilitation before opening in early 2018.
Generative Growth was another company that acquired some former Marsh stores. Managed under a related business called Fresh Encounter, the company rebranded most of their former Marshes as Needler’s Fresh Markets after the surnames of its founders. Here’s one of their stores, first built by Marsh in 1979, in Hartford City.
This final image is of the Arthur’s Fresh Market in Syracuse, a smaller version of the Fort Wayne concept shown previously and a concept headed up by Arthur Marsh, one of Don’s sons. Under Sun Capital Partners, this store, along with its counterpart in New Palestine, closed soon after the company was purchased. Today it’s home to a Verizon store and a redi-med branch of the local hospital while the New Palestine operation is now a Needler’s.
I completed my Abandoned Marsh project in a whirlwind just before Grandpa died. Recently, after revisiting Delaware County’s schoolhouses as a revisit of a project I originally undertook with my mom and grandma, I couldn’t help but think of him. There was no better grandpa that anyone could have, and Charlie learned me a solid lesson in acceptance and stoicism after the Marsh he left in 1998 turned into something else entirely. You see, Charlie Swander didn’t rest on his laurels. He didn’t have any aside from pride in his work. Nothing less, and nothing more.
I guess I lied. Grandpa was extraordinarily proud of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Here he is as I’ll always remember him, making my brother and me a milkshake from the same Marsh ice cream he was served forty years prior when he took goods off of a boxcar. Though Marsh Supermarkets no longer exists, Charlie Swander inhabits a big part of my personality and my heart. I’ll never forget him- I miss my grandpa. And I miss Marsh.