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From shot-and-beer joint to venerable town treasure

by Phil Luciano |
Owner Ashley Harper smiles inside Billy’s Tap in Canton. The oldest saloon in town, Billy’s offers a menu, atmosphere and meeting room that help draw visitors to Canton and boost the local economy
Owner Ashley Harper smiles inside Billy’s Tap in Canton. The oldest saloon in town, Billy’s offers a menu, atmosphere and meeting room that help draw visitors to Canton and boost the local economy

Billy’s Tap is the place where everybody knows your name in Canton, and the locals love it

For 75 years, Billy’s Tap in Canton has operated as a family affair, nowadays serving as a vital community touchpoint.

Third-generation owner, Ashley Harper has spent two decades elevating a weathered shot-and-a-beer joint to a sleek gathering place for guests of every age and background.

“I like to think everyone feels comfortable here, from people who are bringing in their kids to kids that just turned 21,” said Harper, 47.    

Further, Billy’s serves as a key economic driver for the city, said Amanda Sampson, marketing and tourism director for Canton-based Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development.

“Canton, unfortunately, does not have very many large-group gathering areas that are especially hip, comfortable and just fun to be in,” Sampson said. “Billy’s Tap has helped fill a gap in providing gathering space and drawing people to Canton.”

The International Harvester heyday

Billy’s is regarded as the oldest bar in town, though no one seems sure when its doors first opened. The original owner was Billy Brotz, who in 1948 sold the place to Harper’s paternal grandfather, Claredine Carruthers. Located on Chestnut Street, it was a sharp place, with checkerboard tile and glimmering backbar.

Original owner of Billy’s Tap, Billy Brotz
Original owner of Billy’s Tap, Billy Brotz

Over time, Carruthers’ son and daughter-in-law, Bill and Diane Carruthers, took over the operation. In 1972, Billy’s Tap relocated to a former general store at 172 Elm St. The bare and windowless building offered little in terms of atmosphere. But the site was ideal for business, sitting directly across the street from the International Harvester plant. With just a scant menu of sandwiches, the saloon thrived, serving a parade of thirsty factory workers throughout the day.

“They came in before their shift, they came in at noon, they came in after their shift,” Diane Carruthers said.

Amid the steady patronage, there was little investment in upkeep. With all those patrons streaming in, why bother? But after Harvester shuttered in 1983, business began to slowly dwindle, and the bar deteriorated.

“I don’t want to say it looked bad,” Harper said. “But it didn’t look great.”

Recollections of the dark and dingy surroundings prompt winks and smiles from old-time customers such as Roger Flatt, now an Arkansas resident who recently stopped at Billy’s Tap during a visit to his native Canton.

“It was like the bar in It’s a Wonderful Life, Flatt, 70, said with a chuckle. “Like the (movie) bartender said, ‘We serve hard drinks for men who want to get drunk fast.’”

‘I thought it was a Chicago bar’

As the 21st century dawned, Harper wondered about the family business. A graduate of Southern Illinois University, she had been putting her marketing degree to use in the corporate world. But every time she passed Billy’s, she wondered if it could limp along much longer without reinvestment and resuscitation.

“It wasn’t going well,” she said. “I don’t think it would’ve survived.”

Two decades ago, Harper left her white-collar job and took over Billy’s Tap. She knew a little about the bar business, from her parents’ ownership of the saloon. But their greatest lesson came via working hard over the years.

“I learned quite a bit from them,” Harper said. “I have a good work ethic, and I learned that from them.”

But she also had some ideas of her own, adding new windows, lighting, coolers, tables, stools and signage. As a nod to Billy’s history, she left untouched the exposed brick and pressed-tin ceiling.

“It’s been a work in progress,” Harper said. “It’s taken a while.”

The end result is a polished bar — you can order anything from a can of Old Milwaukee Light to drafts of trendy IPAs — that looks as inviting and stylish as a big-city bistro. Tracy Anderson, who makes a 45-minute round trip from nearby St. David at least once a week, said Billy’s has come a long way under Harper’s flourishes.

“The first time I walked in here, I thought it was a Chicago bar,” said Anderson, 61, munching on a lunchtime burger. “She just has good design taste and good ideas.” 

An ‘indescribable’ community asset

Perhaps the best idea came in 2008, when Harper installed a kitchen, a first for Billy’s, allowing the business to serve lunches that now fill the place daily. And two years ago, she expanded the saloon to create a wide-open meeting room that doubles as dining area for Wednesday and Thursday suppers.

The refashioned Billy’s has been a game-changer for Canton, said tourism director Sampson,

“What Billy’s Tap means to the area is really indescribable,” Sampson said. “Billy’s is truly one of the best places to be for its unique build-your-own burgers and pizza nights, unique and delicious lunch menu, continual great selection of beer on tap, and its authentic atmosphere.”

Further, Sampson lauds Billy’s Tap for routinely helping with community events, such as fundraisers for Canton Main Street and Red Dog Cystic Fibrosis. Those endeavors helped prompt the Canton Area Chamber of Commerce to name Harper its 2017 Businessperson of the Year.

For efforts inside and outside Billy’s, Harper is quick to credit her staff. She also thanks her husband B.J. Harper, a professional electrician whose behind-the-scenes handiwork keeps the pub humming.

“Without him, I wouldn’t be able to make it,” she said.     

After 75-plus years, the future looks bright for Billy’s Tap, though Harper sometimes wonders who eventually will take over.

“I don’t have any children,” she said. “I would like it to continue in our family. But I’m not sure that will be an option. … I will do this as long as I can. But as far as the future, I hope whoever takes it over keeps this tradition going, keeps the name the same.

“I hope it sticks around for 75 more years. Or hundreds.”

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]