Sunday, June 7, 2015

Joe Matteuci’s Whiskey Built a Northwest Grocery Empire

When Joe Matteucci opened his first small store in Black Eagle, near Great Falls, Montana, in 1893, he probably never imaged that his small beginnings would blossom into a grocery and drug chain with stores not only throughout Montana, but in Wyoming, Idaho and Washington as well.  A great part of his success was his emphasis on selling whiskey.
Black Eagle got its name when Capt. Meriwether Lewis arrived at the Great Falls of the Missouri River and noticed an eagle’s nest on an island in the midst of the cascade.  The spot is near where the Boston & Montana Consolidated Copper and Mining Compan constructed its refining works on the North Side of the river in 1891,as shown above.  When the smelter was completed, employment opportunities drew hundreds of immigrant workers and their families.

Those folks were Matteucci’s intended customers.  He had been born in Italy in 196. In 1881 at the age of 24, he emigrated to the United States.  The number of Matteuccis in local cemeteries indicates that he already may have had relatives in that area.   Like many Italians Joe was drawn toward the grocery trade but soon learned that the most lucrative part of that business was selling whiskey.
Throughout this vignette are the ceramic whiskey jugs in which he bottled his liquor.  Because Great Falls had good railroad access, he was getting bulk shipments from distilleries in other parts of the country,  most likely Kentucky and Missouri.  Then he was decanting them into stoneware jugs ranging in size from half-gallons to gallons and as much as three gallons.  They ranged from all white “Bristol glaze” containers to two-toned with “Albany slip” brown tops.  All carried a similar underglaze oval label with “M. Matteucci” and “Great Falls.”

While the smaller jugs would have been sold to retail customers to take home, the larger containers, such as the three gallon jug shown here were meant for the saloons and restaurants of the Montana town, to be emptied by their proprietors into smaller glass bottles for back of the bar use.
The year 1893, was a big one for Joe Matteucci not just for opening his first store, but for the immigration of his future wife, Emilia, into the United States and her arrival in Montana.  Theirs may have been an arranged marriage.  At 22 years of age Emilia was ten years younger than Joe.   They would have a family of three children,  two boys, Paul and James and a girl, Helen. 

Almost from the beginning Matteucci seems to have been a successful businessman. In addition to “Joe Matteucci Wholesale Liquors,  he opened a drinking establishment in Great Falls under the name “Joe Matteucci Saloon.” issuing tokens with that name worth ten cents each and probably good for one drink at his bar.  He demonstrated an uncanny knack for knowing how to treat his customers, regardless of their origins.  His profits, fueled by his liquor sales, allowed Matteucci to expand his mercantile operations into selling pharmaceuticals.
Eventually he opened new stores in Montana selling both groceries and drugs.   Until 1920 and National Prohibition his whiskey sales remained a major profit center for all these ventures since many people bought liquor from their druggists.

Unlike other whiskey men, however,Matteucci was not hit particularly hard by the shutdown of his saloon and liquor sales.  By 1920 he had a burgeoning grocery and drugstore trade to rely on.  He could afford to send son, Paul, anointed as his successor, to Gonzaga University in Washington and Santa Clara University in California.  He could also afford the time to be active in the local Christopher Colombo Society, a fraternal organization that provided mutual aid for Italian immigrants, including support to programs that aided the impoverished and disadvantaged.
In 1938 Emilia died and was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Great Falls.   The 1940 census found Matteucci, now 78, living with his son Paul, and Paul’s wife, Jane Johnson, and their twin sons, Ed and Terry.  Paul was now in charge of the Matteucci drugstore and supermarket chain under the name Super Save Stores.   An account from 1955 Missoula Montana noted Super Save as one of the largest groceries in Missoula, Montana.  

With the many changes occurring in the grocery trade, Paul Matteucci  in 1966 sold off the grocery part of the business and the stores became part of the IGA chain.  He continued on as the chairman of the board of the drug store chain.   It was renamed Super Fair and a 1973 ad shows Paul as chairman with two other Matteuccis, likely cousins, in management positions.  In 1981 the drug chain, now doing business in four states, was renamed Drug Fair Northwest.  In subsequent years that name disappeared inside the mergers that occurred in the drug trade.
Meanwhile, the immigrant who had built the chain died in 1940.  Joe Matteucci was laid to rest beside his wife, Emilia, in the Mount Olivet Cemetery.  The Christofo Colombo Society of Great Falls put a plaque in front of the family monument.  It shows two hands shaking, a fitting tribute to a man who came to the America as a youth and through his skill at welcoming customers to his business establishments carved out a supermarket and drugstore empire throughout the Northwest.  

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