Beersheba Springs Market Reopens
by Beth Riner, Messenger Staff Writer
When community members rallied to save the iconic Beersheba Springs Market from permanent closure last year, little did local newlyweds Audra and Billy Ray Miller know they’d be asked to run it.
Located right alongside State Route 56, the mom-and-pop general store had been a much-loved fixture in the Beersheba Springs community for decades. Rebuilt in 1953 after the original store burned in 1947, the market had several owners before Bud Whitman took over in 1976. Whitman ran it for 47 years before deciding to retire last January — only no one was interested in buying the business.
That’s when John Adams and his father, Howell Adams, a longtime Grundy County benefactor, decided to step in and spearhead the fight to save the market.
“This was Howell’s dream,” Audra said. “He wanted this market saved. He’s about leaving a footprint for the next generation.”
Billy Ray added, “He’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. He’s thinking forward at 92.”
Howell’s son, John, put together a group of investors not only to buy the market but also to fund much-needed renovations while keeping its country-store character intact. The plan all along was to find a local couple interested in running the place.
“We literally had just returned from our honeymoon in Vegas when we got a phone call from Howell,” Audra said. A mutual friend had suggested that she and Billy Ray might be good candidates for the job.
“Howell came and had dinner with us at our home and asked us,” Audra recalled. “We were like … ooh, that’s life changing. Billy Ray was retired. I had just retired from 38 years as a hairstylist in McMinnville. It was the perfect timing. We were just a good fit.”
Although they both grew up in the area, the couple didn’t actually meet until 2016. Audra’s son, who was helping Billy Ray clear property to build a house, kept telling his mother that he thought she’d like his employer and his organic gardening techniques. Audra finally agreed to meet Billy Ray.
“He gave me a tour, and the rest is history,” Audra said. She was fresh out of a divorce, and he’d been a confirmed bachelor for nearly 10 years.
“We had our own little Hallmark movie going on,” Billy Ray said, smiling.
Audra, who attended Altamont Elementary, was part of the first eighth-grade graduating class at North before moving on to Grundy County High School. Billy Ray went to Beersheba Springs Elementary and graduated from Warren County High School in McMinnville.
Four years older than her husband, Audra, 56, said it was unlikely they would have gotten together even if they had gone to the same high school all those years ago.
“I would have been a senior in high school, and he would have been a freshman,” she laughed. “I probably would not have talked to him back then.”
Both the Millers took high school vocational classes that profoundly impacted their careers. Audra took cosmetology classes during her sophomore, junior, and senior years, so by the time she graduated, she had logged 1,500 hours, passed her cosmetology test, and went straight to work.
Billy Ray’s time in Junior ROTC paved the way for a 20-year career in the Army — he’d eventually serve as the radio man for the Secret Service guarding President George W. Bush and First Lady, Laura, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney. After retiring from the military, he worked seven years as a veteran’s service officer based at the Grundy County seat in Altamont.
The couple put a lot of thought into whether or not to accept the offer to run the market — their marriage was a top priority. Audra thought they should do it — with one stipulation.
“Let’s promise each other if it ever gets not fun or to the point it’s affecting our marriage, let’s walk away,” she told her new husband. It was a deal Billy Ray had no problem accepting.
The investors, led by the Adams, took possession of the market in April.
“The day that Bud handed over the key to John, we all came up here, opened the doors, and started making plans,” Audra said.
It’s been an adventure — a labor of love with a learning curve.
“We’re hairdressers and Army folk,” Billy Ray laughed. “We’re not shopkeepers.”
Their list to get the place up and running was long — clearing out the building, cleaning, knocking out walls, renovating, creating a kitchen — and it was tricky because they didn’t want to lose the market’s character and hometown feel.
“This was worth saving,” Billy Ray said. “Everybody in this town and people not even from this town — let’s call them the out-of-towners or the summer people — all have memories of being a child in this store. The common denominator is this store.”
Audra and Billy Ray have their memories too.
“See the ballpark that’s right back here was the hangout,” Audra said. “This market being so close — it was the stop-in.”
“It was the center of the universe in the summer,” Billy Ray said, adding that as a child he was allowed to walk from the ballpark to the store along the path that connected the two. He was not allowed to walk along the road. The path is overgrown now, but the Millers plan to bring it back.
Clearing out, cleaning up, and renovating took two solid months.
“It was non-stop,” Audra said.
Another local couple, Ann and Travis Green, played a key part in the renovation. John Adams not only contributed to the design of a new electrical system, but also came up with the point-of-sale plan.
“Before we got this place, it was a cash-only operation,” Billy Ray said. “This will change the dynamic — before the out-of-towners visiting the park couldn’t use their credit cards here.”
Audra wanted to create a café-style eating area. John found booths at a little café near Skymont Boy Scout Camp; they now line the front windows, which were almost completely obscured with shelving and hundreds of trophies awarded for sponsoring ball games throughout the years.
Customers can enjoy the view as they sample some of the house made goodness Audra now prepares in the renovated kitchen. The market offers sandwiches, subs, and pizza all day every day, but Audra often prepares specials like a meat-and-three or homemade potato soup or coconut cake. Breakfast biscuits with sausage, bologna, or tenderloin are available every day.
One very popular attraction is the old-fashioned ice cream bar with its hand-dipped ice cream, hot fudge cake, and banana splits guaranteed to satisfy a sweet tooth.
The market itself contains an eclectic mix of fresh produce, groceries, camping and fishing supplies, hardware, and gifts ranging from T-shirts to animal pelts.
“We’ve been saying if we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” Audra laughed. They strive to carry those supplies that locals may need.
Billy Ray also continues to pump gas for folks whenever he can.
They plan to repaint the market after renovations are complete and want to paint a mural on the back and even add a stage so they can host local pickers and other musicians.
“Eventually, we want to have golf carts and e-bikes for rent,” Audra added. “There’s so much opportunity here.” As the weather warms in the spring, they hope to begin moving forward with these plans.
One exciting development is that Savage Gulf State Park will be opening a new park entrance a mere 150 feet from the market — it’s expected to bring increased traffic to the store as sightseers and hikers flock to the area.
“Business has been good,” Audra said, noting that during the peak season the place was packed. “We have three groups — the locals, the summer people who have houses here and come and stay, and then the tourists.”
They were worried what business would be like after the summer people and tourists left, but the locals have been absolutely supportive.
“We’re providing for them, and they are supporting us beautifully,” she said. “People come in and say thank you for what y’all are doing. Thank you for saving this place.”
In the winter, the market is open six days a week, Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. During peak season, April 1 to Nov. 1, hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.