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Beecham’s Market, Four Generations Strong

Tremont’s throwback meat shop celebrates its 100th anniversary

by Phil Luciano | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Family standing in front of a building - Beecham's Market, Inc.

For a century, Beecham’s Market in Tremont has not only survived, but thrived.

The grocery burned to the ground twice, rising back each time. In more recent years, as Tremont lost multiple markets and mega-grocers popped up in central Illinois, Beecham’s pushed into its fourth generation of family ownership. Though still a general store, the business has found a niche as a destination meat market.

“We can’t compete with Walmart and the big chain stores in Froot Loops and Cheerios,” said Keri Hughs, the 43-year-old great-granddaughter of a co-founder of the family business. “But we can compete in the quality of fresh meat we provide.”

Jerry Beecham pauses inside his Beecham’s Market in Tremont (photo taken in 1940s)

In 1922, William and Clarence Beecham opened Beecham Brothers Grocery in the Peoria County village of Glasford. They offered a foreshadowing of the meat expertise to come, as they would slaughter chickens in the back lot to provide fresh poultry inside.

Second version of Beecham’s Market in Tremont, after the original Tremont location burned in 1940

In 1939, Jerry Beecham – the son of William and Iva Beecham – opened Beecham’s Market in Tremont, an ag town smack-dab in the middle of Tazewell County. (The Glasford spot would eventually close). The couple lived upstairs of the new Beecham’s Market – on Sampson Street, the main commercial strip – and got off to a solid start before a fire of unknown origin broke out one night in 1940 as the pair slept.

After Jerry Beecham awoke coughing on smoke, the couple struggled to get outside to a second-floor porch. As the first floor burned, their cries for help woke up a neighbor, the town mortician, who dragged a ladder to the porch and helped the couple escape. In the end, the entire building was destroyed, along with the market’s inventory, plus the couple’s car and a delivery truck parked directly out back.

Third version of the Market in Tremont, after the second Tremont location burned in 1959. The building, still in use, soon will undergo an exterior remodeling.

“All Mr. Beecham saved from the fire was a pair of trousers he slipped over his night clothes,” according to the Tremont News. “Mrs. Beecham saved only (a) fur coat which she threw around herself as she was carried to safety.”

But soon a new Beecham’s Market opened, a few doors down on Sampson Street. In another stroke of misfortune, a 1959 fire wiped out the place, prompting a third Tremont store – the current building – to be built on the same site.

Eventually, the business was joined (and eventually run) by a third generation, Lanny and Mary Beecham. Meantime, their daughter Keri grew up in the store, learning the trade and enjoying the customer interactions.

“I’m very blessed that my grandfather and grandmother and my parents taught me (a) work ethic and to always put the customer first,” she said.

In 2004, she wed Dave Hughs, a Morton native who worked at a lumber business.  About seven years into the marriage, with her parents looking to retire, Lanny Beecham asked if the Hughs couple wanted to take over the business.

“Her dad wanted to make sure we really wanted to do it, because it does consume your life,” Dave Hughs, 41, said with a grin.

He works 12-hour days Monday through Saturday. His wife works weekdays at home for an insurance company, mostly for the benefits, but she comes into the shop in the late afternoon to lend a hand. Also keeping things humming are five full-timers and five part-timers.

Keri Hughs of Beecham’s Market in downtown Tremont weighs sliced ham.

In addition to a deli, Beecham’s showcases top-shelf beef, pork and chicken, plus homemade sausage and bratwursts. The biggest lure may be the specialty burgers – fresh or frozen – that include the likes of bacon-cheddar-jalapeno-turkey and corned beef with swiss. Such uniqueness helps a throwback grocer to succeed in a Walmart world.

“Folks will bring in their meat list, say they’re going to Walmart (in Pekin or Morton), and come back and pick up their order,” Dave Hughs said. “We’ve found our niche and take care of it the best we can.”

They also take care of customers the best they can. Many are regulars.

“We all try to learn their names,” Dave Hughs said. “We kind of know what they want. I’ve got people who like filets cut a certain way or cut in half with bacon around them.”

Such attentiveness draws customers not only from all over central Illinois but as far away as Chicago. Beyond the meat counter, they come for local items — honey from Delavan, vegetables from Morton, soap from Dillon – not found at every other grocery.

That’s the attraction for Steve and Ethel Applegate, each 74. The couple often motors over from Pekin, especially for the inventory from Roth Countryside Produce of Morton, such as the volleyball-sized melons on recent display. His wife, meanwhile, grabbed several ears of sweetcorn, not even bothering to pull back the husks to check the kernels.

“It’s the sweetest corn I’ve ever had,” she gushed before adding in a whisper – as if revealing the store’s secret weapon – “and they’ve got great turkey burgers.”

This fall, Beecham’s will host an outdoor celebration to mark the family’s 100th year in business. Also, the storefront will soon get a makeover to freshen up the look.

As for any fifth generation of ownership? That’ll be up to the Hughs’ lone child, Ella, 5, when the time comes.

“If she wants to work this hard, she can do it,” Keri Hughs said with a smile. “It’s rewarding, but it’s a lot of work.”

“We’re blessed,” added Dave Hughs. “We’re blessed to be busy.”

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]