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Thursday, July 7, 2011 02:34 pm

Inside Humphrey’s Market

Springfield’s oldest independent grocery is a family affair


Iona, Henry and Hope Humphrey continue the family tradition of service to their customers and community.

Innovative, intelligent women. Industrious men who went the distance. Commitment to community, customers, and family.

The history of Springfield’s oldest surviving locally owned grocery store contains all those elements and more. Even though independent grocery stores nationwide have been declining in number for decades, Humphrey’s Market, which has been located at 1821 S. 15th St. on Springfield’s east side since its inception, has not just survived, but thrived and expanded.

First, full disclosure: My family’s connection with the Humphreys goes way back. Elzie and Leota Smith Humphrey opened the market in the 1930s. Leota’s parents were neighbors and close friends of my great-grandparents. The families also did business together. My great-grandfather, Walter Stevens, and later my grandfather, Robert Stevens, sold produce to the Humphreys; my grandmother, Esther Doerfler Stevens, grew up down the block from their future market. I don’t remember Elzie and Leota, but I’ve known their descendants my whole life. This won’t be an objective account.

“Old Lady Humphrey, she was smart, really smart,” my grandfather would say, referring to Leota. We’d settle back to listen to a story we’d heard hundreds of times before. Although my grandfather’s terminology is politically incorrect today, trust me, he said it with absolute respect and admiration.

As with most Americans, times were hard for Elzie and Leota in the early 1930s. Leota decided to bolster the family’s income by growing and selling tomatoes, buying the plants on credit. Those first tomatoes were sold from their house. It had originally been some sort of store – family members aren’t exactly sure what kind, perhaps a candy shop.

Leota Humphrey shares hugs and apples with neighborhood children at her usual post in front of the store in a photo from 1945.

Selling groceries from home was not uncommon during the Great Depression, according to Robert Dirks, an Illinois State University emeritus professor whose research focuses on food and nutrition. His forthcoming book, Come and Get It, is a study of central Illinois food that spans 180 years. “People didn’t have jobs, so they started groceries,” he says. “They’d sell out of the front of their houses, their garages or even sheds. Most didn’t have much stock, and most didn’t last very long.”

Humphrey’s was an exception. Leota did well with her tomatoes, and Humphrey’s Market – often referred to as Mrs. Humphrey’s Market – was on its way. Elzie began driving a “big” truck, buying produce, often whole crops, directly from the same farmers and growers. He’d travel as far as Texas and Florida during winter months. Elzie would begin with Louisiana strawberries in early spring, then follow the crop northward through Tennessee and eventually up into Michigan and Wisconsin. “They always had the best fruit,” my mother, JoAnn’e Glatfelter, says. “Especially citrus – they knew the best places to get it.” Leota stayed behind, running the market and raising their three sons, Elzie (called “Little” Elzie), Henry and Tom. She was also known as an excellent cook.

Leota’s success was partly due to her family background. The Smiths had owned at least seven Handy Andy Stores in Springfield in the early 1900s. They were the first open-air wholesale and retail produce markets here. Pictures of the Handy Andy at Ninth and Washington show Leota’s father, Sherman, or brother, Fred, standing in the doorway, surrounded by huge hanging banana clusters, watermelons, and other produce – and a sign advertising fresh oysters. Leota did the stores’ bookkeeping before her marriage.

But Leota had more than bookkeeping knowledge. She was a tireless worker, and savvy marketer, someone who could “sell ice to Eskimos.” Henry remembers one time during the mid-1930s. His dad had taken a load of southern Illinois peaches to sell in Iowa. But by the time he arrived, the peaches were over-ripe and the buyer refused to take them. Elzie brought them home, telling Leota, “Sell ’em, can ’em, give ’em away, just get rid of ’em!” before leaving for southern Illinois for another load of peaches to take to Iowa. But before he arrived, Leota called the farmer and left Elzie a message: “Don’t take those peaches to Iowa. You bring ’em back to me. I’ll sell ’em!”    

“My mother asked every customer what they were going to have for lunch or supper,” Henry says. “Then she’d tell ’em what was good in the store and the best way to fix it.” Henry’s daughter, Hope, remembers her grandmother dealing with a load of cantaloupe. “I was only four or five,” she says. “But Grandma cut up some melons, put them on a tray, and told me to go into the store and give away samples.” Leota also opened the store on Sundays – something unheard of back then, but something that drew people from all over the city.

Leota Smith Humphrey's brother, Fred, at the family's Handy Andy store, circa 1920.

Through the 1940s, Humphrey’s was solely a produce market, but things changed after WWII. The eldest son, Little Elzie (now bigger than Big Elzie),  worked as a Navy commissary meat cutter. He started a butcher counter at the store. Tom, the youngest son, joined him. The butcher shop and produce market were in the same building and advertising was done jointly, but the businesses were kept separate. Meat purchases were written on tickets that customers took to the checkout counters on the produce side. Although Elzie and Leota still called it home, additions had been made to the building over the years, with more to come. (There would be a big meat department expansion in the 1980s.) “Whenever we’d get a little money, we’d add on,” says Henry.

Meanwhile, Henry had started traveling with his dad. “I went to high school for three days,” he told me. “Then my dad asked, ‘Do you like going to that high school?’ No, sir, I don’t,” I told him. ‘Then go get in the cab of that truck and drive down to North Little Rock [Arkansas] and bring back a load of potatoes,’ my dad said. Potatoes were real scarce that year.” I asked if he’d had a driver’s license. “Naw,” Henry replied, then, “Well, maybe – but things were different back then.” Soon Henry was making weekly trips to Florida. The truck had become a semi, one of several trucks used for wholesale as well as retail produce. “I’d take down oats to the horse farms and bring back citrus,” he says.

Henry even got married on the road. In 1955, he took his fiancée, Iona (“we have unusual names in our family”), with him. In Corinth, Miss., they stopped off and found a judge to conduct their wedding. “It was his last day – he was retiring,” Henry says. “He had a string tie, and talked to us for 45 minutes about marriage. You can still see three teardrop stains on our license. That judge cried all through the ceremony.”

Leota got more than a daughter-in-law in Iona – she got a kindred spirit who would inherit and augment the role Leota had long held. Iona would eventually expand the produce market into a full-service grocery. But through the 1950s and into the 60s, Leota was still in charge, usually ensconced in a chair at the front of the store. In warm weather the chair and Leota moved outside. Often she’d be surrounded by the neighborhood children she loved and who loved her back. “I remember your mom’d always give me a peach or something,” a longtime customer recently told Henry. “My memories are of her sitting outside in that chair,” my mother says. “She always had a white apron on over her dress, and she always had cash in its pocket – she paid her [local] vendors out of it. And she was usually munching on a big green pepper.” A pepper? “Oh, she loved green peppers,” Hope laughingly confirmed.

By 1967, Leota and Big Elzie were ready to slow down – at least a bit. Henry and Iona took over the store. But the senior Humphreys still lived above the store in warm weather. Tom Williams, a lifetime resident of the area, remembers them in a swing on an upstairs porch, keeping an eye on things. Even when their presence wasn’t physical, their work ethic and values still permeated. “My grandparents weren’t exactly prudes,” says Hope. “But they had pretty strict ideas of right and wrong. When my folks took over the store, my grandparents only asked three things: that the store would never sell liquor, that it wouldn’t push cigarettes and that it’d never participate in the Lottery.” Soon after their road trip marriage, Henry had built a house behind the store (“and when I say ‘I built,’ I mean I built it with my own two hands,” he says) where he and Iona still live today.

Shirley Lawrence is a longtime weekly customer of Humphrey’s, known for its produce.

The senior Humphreys died in the early 1980s, and “Little” Elzie in the early 1990s. Henry and Iona maintained their separate-but-equal partnership with Tom. American butcher shops that cut meat themselves and made and smoked their own sausages, hams and other cured meats were on the verge of extinction. But Humphrey’s still produced its own wieners, bratwurst, salamis, fresh sausages and smoked meats, many in distinct German style. Meat could be cut to order, and special orders were taken. There were real, experienced butchers behind the counter.

Tragedy struck when Tom unexpectedly died in 2001. His family had never been involved in the store and wanted to sell the meat market. With typical Humphrey determination, Henry, Iona and their children, Hope and Henry Jr. (who has since left the business), bought the meat market, finally merging it with the grocery.

Now it’s Henry’s and Iona’s turn to slow down – at least a bit. Henry retired from the road in 1990; these days others drive the trucks, though he continues his brokering. He and Iona are still in the store every day. On my last visit, Henry was keeping a young child occupied with cartoons on the tiny TV above his desk while her grandmother shopped. Iona still bustled around, albeit at a somewhat slower pace.

These days, Hope is assuming ever more responsibility for the store. At first glance, soft-spoken Hope, with fluffy blonde hair, blue eyes and a sweet smile, seems unlike her formidable mother and grandmother. But anyone spending a few minutes with her soon realizes that she’s as smart, innovative and hardworking as those worthy matriarchs, more than capable of being their successor.

Humphrey’s Market continues to flourish. Their trucks may have brought in produce from far away. But seasonally available local produce from local farmers has always been a big part of the picture and remains so today, from asparagus and strawberries in spring, to apples, damson plums, pears and pumpkins in fall. Other local goods are also available, from jams, jellies and pickles to Amish noodles. If you can’t find a certain product, Humphrey’s may have it, or be able to order it – and if it sells, they’ll keep it in stock.

Butcher Todd Burkhart displays one of Humphrey's custom cut roasts.

The meat department still has real butchers. Though there are fewer in-house smoked and cured meats, they still make their own fresh sausages (including fantastic apple bratwurst) and a few smoked specialties, such as summer sausage and beef sticks. Meat can still be special ordered and custom cut. “Customers get exactly what they want, anytime they want it,” says Harold Walker, who’s worked for Humphreys for seven years and has 46 years experience as a butcher. Some of those years were in big supermarkets, but Walker loves working at Humphreys. “It’s the most unique market I’ve worked in,” he says. “The best part here is interaction with the other butchers and staff, and the customers. It’s a real personal thing.” Todd Burkhart, who’s also been a Humphrey’s butcher for seven years, is equally enthusiastic. “We sell as much or more meat in this small shop as we did when I worked in a big chain store,” he says.

 Local is also the byword in the meat department: whole beef sides come from Jerseyville to be cut in-house. Most sausages and cured meats not made in-house are sourced locally, including wieners from Decatur’s Heinkels and Chicago’s Eisenbergs. Free-range chickens and Thanksgiving turkeys come from Illinois Amish. The variety of game and exotic meats is astonishing, including ostrich, buffalo, turtle, pheasant, frog legs, quail, alligator and elk.

Combining the meat and grocery departments freed a space that had originally been part of Elzie and Leota’s living quarters. The Humphreys used that extra space to open a deli counter and luncheonette, which serves daily specials such as chicken and noodles or pork chops, sandwiches (including luscious Italian beef) and sides. The pleasant dining area is decorated with nostalgic food posters.

In 2007, the Humphreys took on a new challenge, purchasing an old building at the corner of 15th and Ash. Over the years it had been both a laundromat and a second-hand store, among other things. But originally it was my great-grandfather Doerfler’s saloon, and then a small grocery during Prohibition. The Humphreys turned it into a pizzeria serving thin, pan and stuffed pizzas (“Made from scratch, Baked on stone”) as well as sandwiches and pastas.

“We maintain our standards and traditions,” says Hope. “But we’re always trying to be creative, too. And we’re always looking to improve the neighborhood.”

Hope Humphrey stands next to a display of Illinois products; Humphrey's continues its tradition of utilizing local producers.

That mindset has made Humphrey’s an anchor in Springfield’s east side, one that’s earned the admiration of Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson. “Humphrey’s Market is a community staple,” she says. “The family has always gone out of their way to make their block – the whole neighborhood – better. Their customers come from all over Springfield, helping change the mindset of people who’ve written the area off. They’re an example of what I’m trying to accomplish – to bring in small businesses that work.”

Why has Humphrey’s Market been successful, when so many other independents have failed? Partly because it’s been a wholesale as well as retail business. Partly it’s because much of their product is local or brought in by themselves, enabling them to offer competitive pricing by eliminating distributor costs. Partly it’s because they have unique and local products that can’t easily be found elsewhere. And in large part it’s because of their incredibly hard work.

But there’s another, ephemeral reason. No matter with whom I%u2008spoke, one word kept popping up about the Humphreys – “wonderful.” “They’re absolutely wonderful people to work for,” says Walker. “They legitimately care about their customers.” The same thing was repeated, in various forms, by their staff, their customers, and by Simpson.

It’s a sure bet that the Humphreys will keep on being wonderful: working hard, taking care of their customers, and coming up with new ideas to improve their market and their neighborhood.

“It’s challenging, but also invigorating,” Hope says.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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