Monday, May 22, 2017

The Complicated Life of a Montana Whiskey Man


In writing about her Montana ancestor, a descendant headlined an article “Franklin James Pierce — A Complicated Man.”  That was an accurate assessment of a saloon keeper and “Green Arbor” liquor dealer whose labyrinthine ways and tangled fortunes might best be narrated as a series of four “complications” to be explored.

Complication #1 — His Name:  Franklin James Pierce was not his real name.  He was born James P. Harshaw in 1866 in Fannon County, Texas, where his father was a rancher.   When James was only nine years old he witnessed the cold-blooded killing of his father by four men who had vowed revenge after he had testified against them in court as cattle rustlers.  According to family lore, the boy was holding his father’s hand when the shots rang out.  

His mother having died earlier, his father had married again, a woman named Mary Helena Pierce.   Although the boy was fond of his stepmother, her father was alleged to have horsewhipped him, resulting in his leaving home at age 13.  With a brother, John, he went to Forth Worth, Texas, where for a time the two ran a gambling wheel in a carnival.   Although John returned to Texas, James, shown right, entrained north to Montana, settling for a time in Anaconda, a copper mining boom town. 

About the same time, he decided to change his name to Franklin J. Pierce, identical to an undistinguished dead President who held the office from 1853-1857, before James Harshaw was born.  He may have selected “Pierce” as a last name from his stepmother but why “Franklin J.”?   My own theory is that because Montana was heavily Democratic in those days and Pierce a Democrat, Pierce/Harshaw may have seen social advantage in the name.

Complication #2 — Marriages:  An family history has copies of three Pierce marriage certificates issued in the decade from 1890 to 1900.  When he was 24, working as a waiter in Butte, Frank met an Irish immigrant girl named Julia O’Neil by whom he fathered a son.  He subsequently wedded her.  After a relatively short marriage, they divorced and she returned to Ireland with the boy.

Eventually Pierce moved to Missoula, Montana, where he owned and managed the Gem Theatre, a vaudeville house that featured, among others, Mrs. Samoya, a master of “black art,”  the Mohring sisters who sang and danced, and, as announced in the Missoula newspaper:  “Joe Crotty, the American boy, a celebrated clog dancer.  He does the act on a pedestal and is said to rank among the very best.”  

Pierce met and fell in love with 21-year-old entertainer named Lulu Inman, originally from Kansas City, who was performing at the Gem.  They were married on New Years Day 1898.  Lulu rapidly became restless “off the circuit” in Missoula, Montana.  When the chance came to join the Rentz-Santley Novelty & Burlesque Company on the road, she left town and Pierce.  The local newspaper headlined:  “She Refused to Live with Him; Missoula Man Looking for Divorce from His Spouse on the Ground of Desertion.

Before long, however,  Frank found true love in the person of Mary Helena Murphy, born into a New Orleans immigrant Irish family.  She also was a performer at the Gem.  In June 1900 the couple were married by an Episcopal priest at Holy Spirit Church in Missoula.   This marriage was destined to last and produce ten children.  A photo from Missoula taken about 1910 shows Frank and Mary (standing) with five of their brood.  They named the two oldest girls “Missoula” and “Montana”

Complication #3:  Misfortunes in Missoula:  For a time after his marriage events seem to go well for Pierce. While having little formal education he was said to have had good business sense.  While continuing to run the Gem Theater, he opened a fancy restaurant on Missoula’s Front Street that he called “Ye Olde Inn.”  Advertised as “the most elegantly appointed cafe in Montana,” the establishment featured a “ladies orchestra” in the evening.   The local paper enthused:  “Ye Olde Inn is one of the most elegant hostelries in the West and a place of which the Garden City [Missoula] can be proud.”

Pierce’s restaurant also appears to have harbored a semi-clandestine casino.  Gambling was illegal in Montana but generally overlooked by authorities.  When a patron complained that he had lost $95 at a roulette wheel in Pierce’s establishment, however, officials were obliged to act.  The owner was arrested and hauled into court.  Although Pierce appears to have escaped serious consequences, his life as a restauranteur posed other challenges.  

“Ye Olde Inn” experienced two fires he believed to be started by disgruntled employees.  After the second blaze, the insurance company refused to pay off.  By now Pierce was over-extended financially.  According to a descendant:  “Frank had planned on a railroad station locating to Missoula, MT where he could make his fortune.  Instead, the railroad settled on Spokane Washington so his ‘gamble’ did not pay off.”  As a likely result Pierce did not have the money to rebuild “Ye Olde Inn.”  Possibly angry at what had befallen him in Missoula, in 1912 he sold the Gem Theater and real estate holdings there and moved his family to Butte.

Complication #4:  Booze in Butte:  Now firmly middle aged, as shown right, Pierce in effect was being forced to start over — this time with a large and still growing family to feed and clothe.  This time he looked to liquor for an income.
Having owned a restaurant he was well aware that alcohol was by far the most profitable item on any menu.  With the money he had made from his Missoula sales he opened a saloon in Butte, located at 124 Montana Avenue.  

He was began retailing whiskey, buying stock by the barrel and decanting it into half-pint and pint flasks for take-away clientele.  Pierce could buy pre-printed labels to slap on the bottles to give them a personalized appearance, as here.  He chose to call his whiskey “Green Arbor.”  Frank also moved his family into a large house at 1015 West Silver Street, shown here.
Pierce plied the liquor trade despite a major looming complication.  Despite harboring hard-drinking ranchers, cowboys and miners, the West rapidly was filling with folks who sought quieter times and gentility.  By 1912 many of them had become advocates for Prohibition as one by one states beyond the Mississippi River chose a “dry” path.  Montana was no exception. Although a majority of voters in Butte was opposed, in an 1916 referendum the state voted itself dry — but was not in a hurry to impose the ban on alcohol.  The law did not take effect until January 1919.

Before the deadline, Pierce shut down his saloon and in the 1920 census was listed as the proprietor of a soft drink parlor at 11 South Montana, down the street from his old saloon.  As shown here, the building still stands.  Given the hard-drinking reputation of Butte, it should be no surprise that bootlegging flourished.  Pierce became part of it.  While his establishment served soft drinks it also served as a cover for the harder stuff.  One of his descendants, noting the difficulties Pierce faced during those years, has related:  “…He reportedly had to pay a lot of bribes to make the local officials look the other way so he could serve alcohol.

The stress may have taken a toll on Pierce’s health.  Shown here is a photo of Frank with his dog, taken in 1923.  At the time he was only 56 years old with his youngest child only age five, but he looks like a much older man.  Three years later he died in December 1926, the cause given as heart disease. His body was return to Missoula for burial in a family plot.  Shown here, his marker sits on Grave 2, Lot 7, Block 032, of the Missoula Cemetery

Summarizing the persona of a man like Franklin J. Pierce is difficult. From all accounts he was a loving husband to Mary Helena and a good father to his children.  His obituary in the Butte Miner newspaper identified him as a “well-known businessman of Butte” but did not go into details.  Another observer has suggested:  “He rubbed shoulders with respected citizens in the community. He entertained a lot of people during his lifetime….”  For all that, the record remains mixed.  During his lifetime Pierce also was involved in activities such as illegal gambling, illicit liquor sales, and bribes to local officials.  “He took risks,”  one descendant has observed.  True enough and they complicated his life.
Note:  This vignette would not have been possible without the wealth of material found in from the Bumala/Yearian family tree.   Although their relationship to Pierce is not explained, they have assembled multiple photos, public documents and several biographical narratives.  It was while tracking the origins of Green Arbor whiskey bottles that I came upon the site.  Pierce’s story was too rich to ignore.   Most of the information and a majority of the photos in this post originated there.


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