Monday, June 10, 2013

Joe Choisser Put His Brand on Cattle and Whiskey

Joseph E. “Joe” Choisser, praised by a biographer as exemplifying “all the best traditions of the patriotic American,” put distinctive brands on both cattle and his own labeled whiskey during forty-five years of business enterprise and community service in the State of Montana.

This Westerner was a direct desendant of John Choisser, born in Illinois of French Canadian ancestry in 1784, a man who had twelve sons and one daughter, rooting a family tree that would branch into well over a thousand descendants today.  According to a family history both Joe’s grandfather and his father, William, served the Union cause during the Civil War in Company E of the 29th Illinois Infantry Regiment.   William is shown here, somewhat out of uniform, a pistol stuck in his belt.  After the war ended the father moved with his Southern-born wife, Mary Jane (Provine) Choisser, to Minnesota where in 1866 she gave birth to the boy they named Joseph E. and called “Joe.”

Shortly after, William returned to Illinois and began farming.  Son Joe attended the public schools of Illinois but early on left education to help support the family.  When he was seventeen,  his father once again pulled up stakes and moved his wife and entire family of seven children to Montana.  They came by train to Miles City and settled on a ranch William bought on Rosebud Creek, about twelve miles from the town of Forsyth.  The father prospered at ranching and to his original tract of 160 acres he eventually added 320 acres in the fertile Rosebud Valley as well as 680 acres of grazing land, raising cattle and horses.

Apparently not drawn to farm life, Joe soon left the ranching to his father and brothers and struck out on his own.  He is said to have traveled throughout the the Montana territory trying out several occupations.  He soon determined to make Forsyth his permanent home.  The seat of Rosebud County, this town had been established in 1876 as the first settlement on the Yellowstone River and was named for a U.S. general.  Notably, another general named Custer marched his troops through the town on the way to the Little Big Horn.  Today with a population of about 1,800,  Forsyth is an exit on I-94 through Montana.

After settling in Forsyth Joe Choisser got busy.  In addition to establishing a saloon and liquor store, he is credited with building one of the first  substantial commercial buildings on Main Street,  preferring the permanence of brick over the customary timbered structures.   His biographer says:  He became the owner of much property and eventually employed his capital in the construction of the Choisser Block, a three-story brick building, the upper floors of which are the chief part of  The Alexander Hotel, while the lower floor is occupied by the post office and business concerns.  A postcard view of Forsyth’s Main Street, circa 10, shown here,  appears to show the Choisser Block at the far left.  It was completed in 1908 at the reported cost of $30,000.

As his wealth grew,  Choisser found time to marry.   In September 1901 he exchanged vows with Florence Gilliland,  who had been born in Nebraska.  Her father, a native of Missouri, and her mother, from Illinois, had brought her as a young girl to Miles City where she met Joe, some 16 years her elder.  A local newspaper described Florence as “a fair young woman” and reported that the newlyweds,  “...Left on the early train for the west, to spend their homeymoon.”   The couple would have one daughter,  Kirtlye, whose name is spelled variously but this way in family archives.

Choisser became involved in an array of commercial ventures, one of them raising and grazing cattle.   The 1903 Montana Stock Growers Association book of brands displayed his JEC brand on the side of a wistful looking steer.   He may have been grazing his cows on some of his father’s lands, listing as ranges Missouri Brakes, Devils Creek,  Dead Man Creek, and Old Range Lower Rosebud River.   His brother,  W. E. Choisser is noted as his foreman.   Although Joe was managing the Alexander Hotel and its downstairs saloon,   his energies principally were devoted to the liquor business.  Much of the Choisser Block contained retail space for a whiskey warehouse and sales.   A token from that business indicates one of Joe’s merchandising methods.
Choisser also may have been blending his own whiskey.  He called it “Flying U Rye Whiskey” and designed for it a label that featured a logo that could have been applied with a branding iron.  He also featured a center illustration of a team of four horses pulling a wagon full of barrels.  The label also included two “art nouveau” type decorations.  Shown here on a amber flask, the label was replicated on a reverse glass saloon sign that Choisser displayed in the Alexander Hotel and gave to other saloons featuring his liquor.  Given the elegance of the design, one might suspect a woman’s hand in its creation.  Florence, however, was said to be a devout Presbyterian and possibly not enthusiastic about the liquor business.

As Choisser’s reputation as a businessman grew, he came to be tapped for important jobs.   Said to be a staunch Republican, although never seeking office for himself,  he was appointed to the State Fair Board of Montana.  He also lobbied for favored causes and is said to have been an interested spectator at many sessions of the Montana Legislature.  At the outbreak of World War One,  Choisser was hailed as “one of the real leaders of Rosebud County,”  serving as chairman of the County Council of Defense, chairman of the executive and finance committees of the Red Cross and as a member of the State Draft Board.  He was praised for being one of few in the county to reach the limit on war bond purchases.  Not to be outdone,  his wife Florence was superintendent of surgical dressings and later vice chairman of the local Red Cross Chapter.

One event that may have diverted Joe’s attention was a fire.  The rays of the sun filtering through a window apparently ignited straw packing in the basement o the J.E. Choisser Wholesale Liquor Company in July 1917.  Exploding bottles of liquor helped fuel the flames that completely gutted the building.  The Alexander Hotel next door, shown here, also sustained some damage. Almost immediately Choisser hired a noted Montana architect to help him renovate the block and add a third floor to the structure. A central open lightwell was added to the design, bringing sunlight to the interior.  The original pediment inscribed with Joe’s name was installed at the top.  Today the building is a centerpiece of the Forsyth Historic District and on the National Register of Historic buildings.

Two years after the fire, on October 21,1919, at the relatively young age of 53,  Joe Choisser died.   It was a particularly difficult time for Florence.  Just hours later her father, who had been living with the Choissers, passed away after a lengthy illness.  Joe is said to have made  monetary contributions to all the local denominations but was partial to the Presbyterian faith of his wife.  Appropriately then, his funeral was presided over by Rev. H. G. Kiemme at Forsyth’s First Presbyterian Church, a structure also currently on the National Historical Register.  Joe’s pallbearers, all said to have been his longtime personal friends, carried the Montanan to a grave site in Forsyth Cemetery,  as his widow and daughter grieved along side.  Many in the region were said to have mourned his untimely passing.

The effusive tributes paid to this man testified to his importance in the eyes of of his contemporaries.  The Billings Gazette said in an editorial:  "In the death of Joseph E.  Choisser of Forsyth, the state of Montana has sustained a distinct and well nigh irreparable loss.  He was one of the factors in developing the resources of the Treasure State in which he had unbounded faith.”  In his book, “Montana: Its Story and Biography,” author Tom Stout said of Joe Choisser:  “...His years in the state were signalized by a high degree of business enterprise, an initiative that made him a leader in community affairs, and he exemplified all the best traditions of the patriotic American.”

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