Saturday, January 5, 2013

Montana’s Martin Luther: Not Just a Token Name

Christened after the famed Protestant reformer,  Martin H. Luther was always going to attract attention for his name.  Beyond that distinction, this Luther carved a career in the whiskey trade and other pursuits that resulted in his being counted prominently among “Progressive Men of Montana.”  Although his name was not just a token,  he issued a number of tokens in his name.

Martin was born in 1857 in Selchow, Kreis Filehne, Prussian Germany, a village of about 500 people that is now part of Poland and known as Zelichowo.  He was the son of Gottfried and Albertine (nee Karkuschki) Luther.  They lived in a Protestant town in a region that was predominantly Catholic and naming their son “Martin” may have been a sign of defiance.  The boy received his early education in German schools.

Although his father was a farmer,  Martin at the age of 14 quit school and left the land to learn the trade of brick mason.   Selchow had a brickworks and he worked in town at his trade for several years.   During that period he may have met Amelia Welke, 10 years his junior, born in Selchow in 1867.   She was the daughter of of August Welke, a farmer and blacksmith of the town. The two would meet again.

Showing a restless streak in his youth,  Luther in 1875 at the age of 18 emigrated to the United States.   He settled in upstate Wisconsin,  first in Baraboo for a year and subsequently in Wausau for three, working at the mason’s trade and learning to speak, read and write English.  In 1879 he continued moving westward,  moving to Fargo, North Dakota,
where he continued his brickwork and did some farming.  After nine years in Fargo, Luther once more set out for new horizons.  He made a prospecting trip through the mining districts of Washington and Idaho before settling down for good in Montana in a new town called Great Falls.

Marking the limit of the navigable section of the Missouri River for large watercraft Great Falls in 1880 had caught the eye of a businessman named Paris Gibson.  He was impressed with the possibilities of building a major industrial city near the falls with power provided by hydroelectricity. Gibson returned in 1883 with surveyors and platted a town on the south side of the river.  Shown here is an 1895 map showing the street grid and early structures.  By 1887 Great Falls had 1,200 citizens and the same year the tracks of the  Great Northern Railway linked the town to the rest of the Nation.  Luther arrived in 1888, the year Great Falls was incorporated.

Apparently using money he had saved from masonry and perhaps prospecting,  Luther seems immediately to have opened a saloon and liquor store to serve the thirsty denizens of this rapidly growing city.   He called his retail establishment “M.H. Luther’s Family Liquor Store.”   It probably was located in a row of brick buildings Martin had constructed on the west side of Second Street, extending from First Avenue north one-half block.

Several years later Luther constructed the first brick building in nearby Neihart, Montana, a silver mining boom community that heretofore had been a row of shacks and today is a semi-ghost town. His structure of two stories indicates Luther had a different idea about Niehart’s future.  Although he later sold the building, he continued to have an interest in mining.  In 1893 Luther bought 50 acres of public land from the government for $5 an acre. Evidence is he subsequently mined it.

Meanwhile in 1887 Amelia Welke, age 20, had emigrated to the United States and settled in Montana.  Whether her coming to the state was merely a coincidence or that she had been in touch with Luther over the years is unknown.  Nevertheless, Martin and Amelia were married in 1892 in Bozeman,  a trip of 190 miles from Great Falls where they made their home.  The couple would have six children:  Louisa Hettie (born in 1893), Erna Emilia (1895), Gretchen Henrietta (1896), Ella Marie (1898), Herman Martin (1900) and Otto (1903).  T he Luther family lived in a large house on 6th Avenue North near 9th Street.

Throughout this period the M. H. Luther Family Liquor store was thriving.  One evidence of this was Martin’s ability to afford to put his whiskey in well designed jugs produced in  Redwing in far off Minnesota.  One is shown here. He also put his whiskey in glass -- a shoofly glass bottle exists with “From Luther’s Family Liquor Store...This Whiskey Absolutely Pure...Great Falls Mont.”

Another sign of prosperity was the discounts his business gave through issuing tokens.  The early ones were molded in brass with an elegant “L” (for Luther) and a 12 1/2 cent discount.  Another token was a hexagon,  again with an “L” and noting “Great Falls, Montana.”  A third token was round and had a decorative half moon cut in it.  It mentions no value so it may have been meant as a “lucky” pocket piece.  A fourth token, shown here back and front, appears to have made of tin or aluminum.

Luther was not finished with construction in Great Falls.  During 1900 and 1901, he erected a building, termed “elegant” by a contemporary observer.  It was 50 by 150 feet, with two stories and a basement.   He called it “Luther Hall” and the structure became a  centerpiece of the growing city.  His hall was the scene of girls’ basketball games, the regional convention of chicken farmers and other trade groups, and social events sponsored by local chapters of organizations such as Modern Woodmen of America.   On many weekends the main pavilion became a dance hall.  Characteristically, Luther issued tokens that allowed lucky bearers a free dance.

His role as a builder probably was Martin Luther’s entree into the 1902 tome, “Progressive Men of Montana.”  Without mentioning his saloon or whiskey trade,  that publication extolled him as a real estate and mining figure.  It said of him:   “No name is perhaps more prominently associated with the progress and substantial upbuilding of the city of Great Falls than that of Mr. Luther....”

Amid this success was a real worry.  Montana had been flirting with Prohibition since the middle of the 19th Century.  “Dry” forces were strong in the state.  Although Luther was a self-identified Democrat, his party affiliation was of little help during this period since national and state power largely was in the hand of Republicans, who leaned “dry.”  In 1910, ten years before National Prohibition was voted in,  Montana passed a law that forbade all sales of alcohol.  M. H. Luther Family Liquor Store closed its doors forever.

Neither Martin nor Amelia is recorded in the 1920 census, indicating that they might have died.  Son Henry Luther was listed as an auto mechanic and Otto Luther was a clerk in an auto supply store, both still living in Great Falls.  Opposition to the enforcement of Prohibition grew over the years as people became disillusioned with the so-called “Noble Experiment.”  Montana became the first state to vote repeal in 1934.  For the remaining Luthers, it must have been an ironic and perhaps bitter turn of events.

As for Martin Luther,  he may best remembered through his apparent fascination with issuing bar tokens, artifacts that today are avidly collected.   Or we may choose to think of him as he was described in ”Progressive Men of Montana”:   “He is far-sighted and discriminating in his methods, and his success has been attained by worthy means, his absolute integrity of purpose being recognized by all.”


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