Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Tale of Two Gieses in Great Falls, Montana

When Richard and Charles Gies, immigrant brothers from Germany, arrived in Great Falls, Montana, in the 1890s, they each headed into different aspects of the whiskey trade, one in wholesaling to saloons and the other running one, but both found success and recognition as pioneering businessmen of the West.  
The Gies brothers originally were from Hesse Cassel and their ancestors were prominent in the Prussian Army. Their grandfather, Johannes Gies Sr., was said to have been “well known in military circles.”  Their father,  Johannes Jr., had a distinguished record wielding a saber in a troop of Hussars light cavalry.  Johannes Jr. married Katherine Rickel and the couple had ten children, two daughters and eight sons.  Among them was Richard, born in 1865 or 1866, and Charles, born in 1868.

Their coming to America could have been triggered by any of several reasons:  In such a large family their prospects of inheriting any land or wealth may have been bleak, joining the Prussian Army often meant death for new recruits even in training, or they may have had a lust for adventure.   One story has the pair among three brothers who went to Montana in the 1870s, one of whom, Vincent, became a prospector and miner.   Another narrative has Charles at the age of 16 arriving in America in 1884 with an uncle and settling in St. Paul, Minnesota.  There he is said to have worked at the baker’s trade, one to which he had been apprenticed in Germany.  According to this story, it was not until 1887 that Charles traveled further west to Montana and joined his brothers at a settlement called Maiden.
Today a ghost town, in those days Maiden was a ramshackle but booming community, as shown above, a product of a gold strike in the region. By 1881 the population had grown to 6,000 with many men living in tents by a creek.  As the result of a push to build more sturdy structures, two years later there were 154 log and lumber houses and other establishments. 

At the time the Gieses were resident, Maiden boasted seven general and clothing stores, a blacksmith, two barbers, several banks, a feed stable and eight saloons.  Among those drinking establishments was one run by Richard Gies, whose tin bar token is marked with his name stamped on one side and “Maiden” on the other.  There also was a Gies Meat Market and Bakery in town, likely Charles’ enterprise.  One account indicates that he may also have run a restaurant.

As gold deposits in the area began to play out,  the Gies brothers had the foresight to see that Maiden was a rapidly diminishing economy.  By 1896 only about 200 residents remained.  Earlier they had looked down the road to a place called Great Falls that quickly was becoming a thriving industrial and supply center, boasting ample hydroelectric power and a stop on the Great Northern Railway.  Shown here on a map of 1891, Great Falls seemed destined to become one of Montana’s larger cities. Leaving Vincent behind in Maiden, the Gieses took their energies and savings there in the mid-1880s.

Charles Gies may have been the first to open a business.  In July 1888 he is said to have begun a bakery and pursued selling bread and pastries, apparently with success for four years.  In 1896, however, he apparently concluded that another occupation would be more rewarding.  Selling his baking factory and store, he formed a partnership with a local, Frank Glab, in the wholesale liquor business.
According to their letterhead of 1898, Glab & Gries Co. also were selling cigars and were “bottlers of all kinds of mineral and soda waters.”   The brands of whiskey the company advertised indicated that they were getting national brands by railway from the East.  Those included “Our Pride,” from J. & E. Freiberg of Cincinnati and “Old Hume.” from Humphrey-Staff of St. Louis.  In addition, they were bottling and labeling a proprietary brand they called “G & G Monongahela,” indicating a Pennsylvania origin.
During this period, the Gies Brothers were having personal lives.  In 1894 Richard married Isadora F. (sometimes given as Issadore) Turnblade, a woman who had been born in Iowa.  Future census records would show them with a family of three boys, as well as harboring Isadora’s widowed mother.  Two years later Charles tied the knot with Mayme Miller (sometimes given as Mame), the daughter of Matthias and Katherine Bauer Miller.  They would go on to have a family of five, three girls and two boys.

Glab & Gries grew rapidly as Great Falls expanded and in their ads, as on this trade card for “Yellowstone Whiskey,” called themselves “The Leading Montana Wholesale Dealers.”   Yellowstone was a nationally distributed brand from Taylor and Williams of Louisville that advertised Western scenes like that shown here, a view that clearly was intended to appeal to a Great Falls consumer. 
In 1900, for unexplained reasons, Frank Glab and Charles Gies dissolved their partnership and Gies continued in the business by himself at 504-506 Central Avenue.  His letterhead above from 1906 indicated that the firm now had an additional line of goods in bar supplies and glassware.  He also was advertising a new line of whiskeys, including Tippecanoe and Union Club from the Union Distilling Co. in Cincinnati and Hermit Old Rye from F. P. Gluck of the same city.  (See my post on Gluck, June 2014). 
As prohibitionary forces were gradually reducing the markets for Gies’s products, he was able to fall back on non-alcoholic drinks as a bottler and jobber of “all kinds of mineral & soda waters.”  Shown here is a quart bottle of Chas. Gies “Orange,” advertised as a “a most refreshing and palatable beverage.”  But even soft drinks could have pitfalls.  In 1913 the Montana Department of Agriculture cited Gies for “misbranding” his 12 ounce strawberry soda, claiming that the bottles tested failed to meet that volume. 

Meanwhile Brother Richard Gies was operating a highly successful drinking establishment.   He called it the “16 to 1” Saloon, a reference to the hottest political issue of the day — the ratio of silver to gold coinage value.  Gies like most of his Great Falls customers was a “Silverite,” members of a political movement who believed silver should continue to be the monetary standard of the U.S.  The cause was popular in the West where advocates believed “cheap silver” would help them alleviate their debts.  As in Maiden, Richard issued bar tokens and for special customers, a match case of metal and celluloid. 
The businesses of both Charles and Richard came to a halt in 1920 when National Prohibition arrived.  As a number of other ex-liquor dealers did, Charles took his profits and invested in the fast-growing automobile business and in real estate development.  Richard all along had diversified by being active in gold mining.  About 1897 with profits from his saloons, he had purchased four mining claims for $40,000 ($1 million equivalent today) and over time added other mines, until Gies had nine key claims and consolidated them as “The Goldstone Mine.”
When Richard Gies died in 1920, his widow Isadora stepped up to manage his business interests, a woman noted for her financial acumen.  Eight years later Charles Gries was stricken with what was called “influenza-pneumonia” on a Sunday  morning in February and within several days was dead.  The brothers are buried not far apart in Section 11 of the Great Falls Highland Cemetery.  Each of their gravestones are shown here.  At their deaths both whiskey men were hailed in Montana newspapers as respected pioneer businessmen of Montana.  
Note:  The story of the Gries family origin in Germany and of Charles Gries career in the U.S. was obtained principally from a 1913 book entitled “History of Montana” by Sanders.  Other material on the brothers was derived from a variety of sources, including U.S. census records.


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