Beech Grove Battles Back

Updated June 15, 2021
Beech Grove City Hall
Beech Grove City Hall sits on a recently resurfaced Main Street, which also features a unique variety of businesses. (Photo by Frank Espich)

Residents want you to know one problematic Walmart doesn't define them or their town.

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When you talk about Beech Grove, for some, the words conjure two women clawing each other’s eyes out in the Walmart shampoo aisle. Others might envision a quiet little bedroom community home to generations of hardworking Hoosiers. For most, though, Beech Grove is simply an unknown.

The city of around 14,000 has taken its lumps, but with renewed municipal vision and the positivity of its residents, Beech Grove hopes to take a big step forward.

From Farmland to Company Town

Prior to 1900, Beech Grove sprawled with farms, including Beech Bank, inhabited by Sarah T. Bolton, known as the pioneer poet laureate of Indiana. Also coined from the abundance of beech trees, Indianapolis financier Francis McClintock Churchman had Beech Grove Farm, and a spectacular home that stood until the 1960s.

The city incorporated in 1906 and became a company town for the Beech Grove Shops, a repair facility for the Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and St. Louis railroads. Residential lots originally started at $270, and some interesting characters settled there.

Beech Grove Original Plat
Just $270 scored you a lot in Beech Grove in the early 1900s as it became a railroad town. (Photo by Frank Espich)

“It’s safe to say there were some wild types here and there,” Beech Grove Historical Society member and librarian Michele Patterson says. “There were a lot of single men who came from all over to work, and many lived in rooms with a saloon on the bottom floor.”

Two notable actors hailed from Beech Grove: three-time Oscar-nominee Clifton Webb and the legendary Steve McQueen. It’s also hosted two presidential visits: one from Harry S. Truman, who participated in a 1948 ceremony at the Masonic Lodge, and another from Barack Obama, who visited the home of Mike and Cheryl Fisher during his 2008 campaign.

The city took a hit in 2012, when St. Francis Hospital left after 98 years of service. Beech Grove’s biggest employer took 2,000 jobs with it.

“The City of Beech Grove did a lousy job getting ready for it,” Mayor Dennis Buckley says. “It did nothing in the way of helping people with future employment. We lost the jobs, businesses around it suffered, and we had 900,000 square feet of empty building.”

St. Francis might be no more, but Beech Grove’s original business pillar remains.

Harry Truman visits Beech Grove
President Harry S. Truman visited Beech Grove in 1948 for a Masonic ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Beech Grove Public Library)

Getting on Board

The New York Central Railroad took over the Beech Grove Shops in 1922. It became property of Penn Central Transportation in ’68, when New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad merged. Penn Central went bankrupt just two years later, and Amtrak assumed control in ’75.

The facility, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in the spring, employed 5,000 at its peak. Now that number’s dwindled to around 550.

Beech Grove Indiana Amtrak
Beech Grove Shops once had 5,000 workers. Now that number is around 550. (Photo by Frank Espich)

At the turn of the decade, Beech Grove Shops faced potential closure, but an internal committee of workers and managers formed in 2011, and forged a plan for $50 million in increased revenue or cost avoidance. They met their goal this year, a few months ahead of schedule.

“It has been extremely successful, and it’s being modeled now in different areas of Amtrak,” Beech Grove Shops General Manager Bob Moriarty says.

The massive facility refurbishes around 165 train cars per year, and its workforce comes from all over.

“We have folks from across the Indianapolis metro area, and some who drive from as far as northern Kentucky,” Moriarty says.

Ralph's Barbershop Beech Grove Indiana
Ralph VanderBaan, owner of Ralph's Barbershop, has been in the business for 50 years. (Photo by Frank Espich)

Perfect Strikes

Amtrak isn’t the only longtime commercial institution in Beech Grove. 

The highly rated Eckstein Shoes and Repairs opened in 1923. The parents of current co-owner Jim Coffman grew up with the previous owner, and together they purchased it in 2012. Most of the shop’s inventory is American-made, and they repair shoes, purses, belts and luggage – just about anything made out of leather or vinyl. Each customer is custom-sized, in a level of service that harkens back to a bygone era.

Jim Coffman, manager of Eckstein Shoe store
Jim Coffman, co-owner of Eckstein Shoe Store, can repair about any accessory made out of leather or vinyl. (Photo by Frank Espich)

“We saw that it was a successful business and one people needed,” Coffman says. “There are a lot of hidden gems here that people don’t really realize. We’re almost forgotten down here on the Southside sometimes.”

RELATED VIDEO: Learn More About Eckstein Shoes and Repairs

Well-known for 24-hour service, Beech Grove Bowl opened in 1948.

“We have a frequent bowler’s club with over 33,000 people in the system,” owner Scott Seach says. “We see a lot of stories in the news where right away we know they’re in the system, some for good things, some for bad.”

Seach started at the alley in ’95, and bought and essentially saved it five years ago. Also with a background in pizza, he’s turned it into a successful carryout enterprise while breathing in new life with an exterior remodel.

A bowler at Beech Grove Bowl
Beech Grove Bowl is open 24 hours a day, and sometimes has a wait list until 4 a.m. (Photo by Frank Espich)

The alley especially thrives during off hours and cold weather.

“The majority of our business during the busy season is after midnight,” Seach says. “On Fridays and Saturdays in January through March, we run a waiting list until 3 or 4 a.m. We’re the only 24-hour family entertainment in Central Indiana. The only others are casinos.”

No More Nonsense

Buckley spent 30 years as a firefighter, the last 12 as chief, before he retired in 2009. He was elected mayor two years later.

“I thought the city was failing before I won, but found out it was worse than I thought,” Buckley says. “We were in the tank financially, we had crumbling infrastructure and the future was bleak.”

Aided by a slowly improving economy, much has happened under Buckley’s watch. Downtown vacant buildings have dropped from 22 to three. What was a decrepit Main Street has a new surface, and there are new sidewalks and signs all around. City-wide recycling began in August. ADM Milling and Kinetrex Energy invested $58 million in their facilities, and there’s a new senior living development going up. Also, it appears the Indy Connect Orange Line and Indianapolis Cultural Trail will soon join Beech Grove to the rest of the metropolitan area.

Mayor Buckley, Beech Grove
Mayor Dennis Buckley has shown he won't back down from corporate giants. (Photo by Frank Espich)

“We are back on track as a city, and now we’re moving it forward,” Buckley says.

The city still has an image problem to bury, mostly due to frequent malfeasance at the local Walmart, including the infamous female fight video that went viral last summer. But along with the Motel 6, which has had its own issues, Buckley has shown he’s willing to go to war with large corporations to make Beech Grove a better place to live.

“I met with the Walmart people, and when I told them they were a public nuisance, they looked at me like, ‘Well, we’re Walmart.’” Buckley says. “I went into burning buildings and houses for 30 years, so I don’t care, dealing with them isn’t hard for me. I’m not putting up with this s---.”

Lifelong residents Phil and Christa Smiley echo the sentiments of most Beech Grovers, who want people to know the troubled Walmart doesn’t represent them or the town they enjoy.

Christa and Phil Smiley
Christa and Phil Smiley remodeled a 1910 home that they've lived in for three years. (Photo by Frank Espich)

“I love the small-town feel and we have a great school system here,” Christa says. “We have an engaged faculty, a good administration, and that’s been a big draw for me.”

Added Phil, “It’s nice being right next to the city, but also where you can walk outside, walk down the street and say hello to people you’ve known your whole life.”

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