We continue our monthly Heritage Business Spotlight with Simmons Center Market! Each month, we recognize a business with deep ties to the Heart of the Chesapeake Country Heritage area.
Simmons Center Market steeped in tradition
It should come as no surprise if you feel like you’re at home when you walk into Simmons Center Market in Cambridge. The family-run business is one of the oldest, continuously-running grocery stores on the Eastern Shore, and many of the customers have been coming there since they were small children, accompanied by their parents, who, in turn, were accompanied by their parents.
Center Market has been a steadfast establishment on Race Street, supporting the community and its residents since Jimmy and Elizabeth Simmons opened the store in 1937. It is as much a heritage pillar as it is a promoter of Dorchester County’s heritage.
A family-centered business
The store is now owned by Ricky Travers, grandson of the original owners. He and his wife, Rosi, adhere to the same values and maintain the same consideration for their customers as his grandparents did when they first opened its doors. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
At any given time, Ricky likes to say, you may find four generations all in the store together. His own parents, Joane and Calvin Travers, continue to work there a couple of days a week. His sister, Lollie Travers Walters, works full time in the business, as do two of his four sons, Rick Jr. and Randy. Two other sons, Ryan and Rob, are full-time firefighters but help out occasionally.
Two of Lollie’s children also work in the store part time, and Ricky’s own grandchildren are frequent visitors to the store, where they like to “help” stock the shelves.
“It’s a blessing to be able to work with my wife every day,” Ricky said. “We’ve been married 40 years, and out of that time, we’ve worked together 20 years.”
Rosi added, “The four boys grew up here. They took their naps in shopping carts. I would put pillows in the carts and push them around. It’s been a real blessing. Not every kid can say that they are able to come and see their Dad just about every day at work.”
The second through fifth generations of descendants of the store founders include, starting from the bottom of the stairs at left: Brie Walters, Calvin Travers, Lollie Walters, Joane Travers, Ricky Travers, Rosi Travers, Rob Travers, Randy Travers holding Calvin, Kat Kastel, Amy Travers holding Brindlee, Heather Travers, Ryan Travers holding Benton, Brody Travers, Rick Travers holding Kaleigh. (Family members not pictures: Ashley Travers, Renee Haehnlen, Gavin Travers, Brad and Chesea Walters and their children, Everly and Oaklyn, and Doug Walters.
In fact, being able to work with his extended family and foster connections to customers who become like family are what Ricky describes as the most fulfilling aspects about the business.
“We’ll have customers come in who remember that their grandfather would bring them to the store, and now they are bringing their own grandkids because their grandfather did,” Travers said. “We see it a lot at Christmas and the holidays. They’ll come in and say that it wouldn’t be Christmas if they didn’t come by Simmons Market.”
Christmas is a special time at the store, with extensive holiday decorations and inventory. They carry about 40 kinds of old fashioned Christmas candy that is not available anywhere else in the area, fill their greenhouse wall-to-wall with bright poinsettias and feature a vast array of handmade Amish crafts and other unique one-of-a-kind gift items in their gift shop next door.
The Simmons family established their reputation as innovative marketers almost from the start.
They were the first to introduce self-service grocery shopping on the Eastern Shore in 1945 when they provided shopping carts in their store. They brought in the woman who portrayed Aunt Jemima to prepare pancakes for their customers, and he brought in Planters’ Mr. Peanut.
In 1953, in commemoration of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds, Jimmy Simmons arranged to have an airplane drop flyer saucers, which could be redeemed for prizes in the store.
Center Market was one of the few businesses on the predominantly white Race Street that served the African-American community during the time of segregation.
A walk into history
Over the years, the family had collected an impressive amount of supermarket memorabilia that dates to the 1930s. Look up at the highest shelves lining the inside perimeter of the store, and you see vintage brass cash registers, antique meat slicers and scales, wooden boxes that held stock, original boxes of discontinued items, and more. The display demonstrates a deep appreciation for the business’ heritage.
“It is sort of like a walk in history when you come in,” Ricky said.
True to their roots
Today, the store remains true to its roots, carrying staples like fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as meats, cut and ground fresh multiple times a day; country sausage, which is made every day; fresh turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas; antibiotic-free pork and chicken; and specialty gift baskets.
They still get their molasses in 55-gallon barrels and draw off that for the jars they sell. The Old Time Barrel Molasses carries a label that was designed by Ricky’s grandfather and is made from the same family recipe that goes back to the 1950s.
They still deliver groceries, baskets and greenhouse items around Cambridge throughout the year and even offer delivery to boaters who dock at the local marinas.
“It’s a trip back in the past because you’re not going to find this when you go to other grocery stores,” Ricky said. “When I look at this building, I look at many years of my life. I grew up here. I started there when I was about three months old in a playpen and I’ve been there my entire life.
“We thank God every day. It’s a wonderful life.”
600 Race Street
Cambridge, MD 21613
Ricky and Rosi Travers inside Simmons Center Market
Be a Heritage Business!
The monthly Heritage Business Spotlight recognizes and promotes long-standing, local businesses with deep ties to the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area (HCCHA) and that have a demonstrated commitment to advancing the mission and goals of the HCCHA. Click here for more information about how you can be recognized as a “heritage business.”
An antique sleigh filled with gifts inside the gift shop.
*Win a Gift Certificate from Simmons Center Market!
As part of our Heritage Business Spotlight, Simmons Center Market will award a $25 gift certificate to one person chosen randomly from those who post a bit of trivia or a positive experience they have had with Simmons Market. Just share your comment on our Facebook post by November 30 to be entered in the drawing.
*CONGRATULATIONS to Shirley Witt who won the gift certificate from Simmons Center Market! She commented: “Holidays were always fun at Simmons Center Market. There were live rabbits and baby chicks at Easter, live trees and old fashioned hard candy at Christmas. My mother always went there when she was getting ready for the church’s annual oyster suppers. It was always a welcoming store with Mr. Jimmy Simmons.”
Shirley Witt turned around and generously donated her gift certificate to a needy family.
How does water move you?
“Water moves us because of where we live. A lot of people move here because of the water, and they become our customers.
“It is such a big part of our county. God’s blessed us with a beautiful county. We’ve got rolling fields and farmers’ harvests in one part of the county. You head south, and you’ve got beautiful waterways, beautiful wildlife – bald eagles – they’re around everywhere. You can go out and take a ride to Blackwater and see all the wildlife around.
“Dorchester’s a very unique area.”
– Ricky Travers
A few of the antiques that adorn the shelves above the groceries.