It’s one thing to write a history of a place no one remembers.
That’s not the case with the Missoula Mercantile Co.
Just say “the Merc” around those of a certain age in these parts and you’re almost sure to invoke a torrent of sounds, smells, sights and stories.
“I could spend a lifetime on this,” Minie Smith sighed Thursday. “But at least it’s a start.”
The Missoula historian was leafing through a galley proof of her first book, the 192-page “The Missoula Mercantile: The Store that Ran an Empire” that’s so hot off the press it wasn’t even here yet.
Smith, Barbara Theroux and the folks at Fact and Fiction waited on pins and needles as the first boxes of books, officially published on Sept. 4, made their way across the country from the History Press in South Carolina.
The last Smith heard Thursday morning they were in Fargo, N.D.
Theroux said Thursday evening they weren’t stranded in Fargo, but had made it to Billings. It looked promising the Missoula Merc’s first full-fledged biography would be in Missoula on Friday morning – time to spare for a scheduled book signing at Fact and Fiction at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Smith’s book traces the rise of one of Missoula’s earliest trading posts, built in 1866 on West Front Street, to its days of true empire and beyond. At one time, the Merc was said to be the largest department store between Minneapolis and Seattle.
Its story of glory began with Andrew B. Hammond, who took over management in 1876 and oversaw construction of the current building at the corner of Higgins and East Front the following year. Hammond became known, derisively, as the “Missoula Octopus” for his far-flung railroad, lumber, mercantile, banking and real estate interests.
“While on the subject of corporate interest, what’s the matter with THIS?” wondered a political cartoon of the Missoula Octopus in a local newspaper.
Hammond and partner Edward Bonner, for whom the old lumber mill town east of Missoula is named, both came from mercantile backgrounds. But contracts to build the Northern Pacific line through western Montana in the early 1880s launched the empire.
The mercantile partnership included Richard Eddy, and was known as Eddy, Hammond and Co. before it became the Missoula Mercantile. Smith said tent stores were established along the line and they could be picked up and moved to follow the tracklayers to places like Weeksville, in what became Sanders County.
“The railroads gave Hammond the money to be able to buy in cash, which meant he didn’t have to buy with credit,” Smith said. “Bonner had come from New York where he’d worked at Lord’s and Taylor and he had connections there, so they built up a line of credit in New York banks.”
Hammond left Missoula in 1894 for the West Coast, where he built an even bigger lumber and railroad empire. His successor at the helm was C.H. McLeod, his nephew from New Brunswick and by many accounts his alter ego – a benevolent and empowering boss who ruled the Merc until 1941.
“Hammond’s interest leaned more to financial reward, while McLeod seemed to have a genuine interest in participating in and supporting the community and state in which he lived,” Smith writes.
McLeod’s son Walter carried on as president after his father’s retirement, from 1941 into the 1960s, and many Missoulians today remember working for or befriending him.
Like the subject material, resources on the old Missoula Merc are rich and almost endless – to a point.
Smith mined the extensive collection of C.H. and Walter McLeod papers Mansfield Library archives at the University of Montana, following leads and rearranging letters, bills and other records into chronological order to get a handle on the sequence of events.
“The archives were great up until Walter’s death” in 1963, she said.
Allied Stores Corp. bought the Merc in 1960 but retained the name until the Bon Marche bought Allied in 1978. Federated Department Stores took over in 1989, and the name changed over the years from the Bon to Bon-Macy’s and, in 2005, to Macy’s. Macy’s closed the doors in early 2010.
The building’s current owner, the Octagon Partners, has restored the historic name and is in the process of returning the building to its former look, feel and function as a retail space.
Smith said she in essence stopped her detailed story after Allied took over because there weren’t any records.
One of her best living sources was Ty Robinson, whose memories stem from the 22 years, starting in 1948, he served as the Mercantile’s legal counsel. Robinson told Smith that Federated hauled “a lot of things to the dump” when it took over, she said.
But photos, stories, ads and records from the early years are plentiful. The oldest photo is of a receipt from the Merc’s predecessor, Bonner and Welch, in 1869. Its stamp advertises “Dry Goods, Groceries, Liquors, Boots, Shoes, Etc., Etc.” and claims the store also keeps on hand “a choice assortment of California and Oregon goods.”
Smith said the book includes 82 pictures in all, most from collections at Stan Cohen’s Pictorial Histories Publishing, the UM archives and the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, where Smith spends lots of time as an education docent.
In the book’s afterword are recent pictures of the Mercantile taken by Smith’s husband, Alan McQuillan, a professional photographer.
Smith, a native of Philadelphia, moved to Missoula in 1992 after a career in land conservation in Maine. She worked for Five Valleys Land Trust before retiring and indulging in a long-abiding love for historical research.
“Anything Minie does she’s very thorough,” said Dorene Might-Dyer, director of education at the Fort Missoula museum. “She is definitely research- and academic-oriented.”
Smith was the main researcher for the museum’s prize-winning exhibit on the Great Fire of 1910, and co-founder of the Bonner Milltown History Center, which researches and celebrates a history that’s tied closely to that of the Missoula Mercantile. She was awarded the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission’s Dorothy Ogg Award for individual contributions to the history of Missoula.