The Elder/Hughes family roots run deep in Missoula – dating to 1891, when Sam Elder arrived in the Garden City to open a blacksmith shop (featured in last week’s column).
Both Sam and his son Claude became well known in the harness-racing world, but Claude’s business interests were elsewhere. He worked in a variety of business and banking jobs, including a stint at Farmers Bank in Victor and some time in the State Examiner’s Office, reviewing the financial records of city and county governments, including Missoula’s.
In March 1920, Claude had a chance to buy a well-established local business originally located in the 100 block of West Main Street, next door to the Missoulian newspaper & print shop, then moved to the Florence Hotel Building.
The business, called “Office Supply,” was owned by Joseph M. Dixon and H. B. Boomer. Dixon was a prominent local lawyer who married Frank Worden’s daughter, Caroline. Over the years, he owned a number of newspapers, including the Missoulian, and became deeply involved in Republican politics – elected to state offices and then to the U. S. Senate.
When Dixon decided to run for governor of Montana (he won, by the way), he sold the business to 34-year-old Claude Elder, in whose family the business remains. In fact, January 28, 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the Elder/Hughes family ownership of what we now know as Missoula’s Office City on Broadway.
Claude Elder was energetic and ambitious, and had big plans. He joined the chamber of commerce and other civic and business groups, eventually serving as president of the Chamber.
In July 1920, he and other merchants decorated their motorcars with banners and company advertising for a chamber of commerce “trade excursion” to the Flathead Valley. Similar outings were planned for the Bitterroot and other areas.
He joined the Missoula Country Club, where he had a 20 handicap, and chaired the entertainment committee for the Western Montana Fair.
Claude’s promotion and advertising campaigns became legend. At first, his ads for the store were just aimed at selling a specific product like a Pocket Premo camera or a new wastebasket made “of steel” which would “last forever.” But in the 1940s, Claude showed off his deep roots in the community in a series of “Do You Remember?” newspaper ads, featuring local history and characters.
One asked readers if they remembered “Otto Siegel’s cub bears” or “Spider carrying 27 loaded glasses of beer without aid of a tray?”
Another asked whether folks remembered the “illuminated night bicycle parade,” or when “Montana had 18 counties?” How about when “Swede Johnny (was) asleep on his back” or when there were Sunday afternoon horse and buggy rides for $1.50? Of course, off to the side of the history questions were ads for rubber bands, office chairs and other merchandise.
Claude was a member of the Lions Club public speaking class and always seemed to insert a bit of humor in his stories. Back in 1897, he recalled, Missoulians in great number took leave of the Garden City for a day, traveling by horseback or in buggies to Frenchtown for the St. John’s day picnics. There, the 15-year-old observed “the best-looking women I’ve ever seen,” but they only spoke French so a “man who spoke English was out of luck.”
Another time, he shared with a local newspaper columnist a delightful story of a mistake made by a stage hand at the old Bennett Theater. The fellow was handed a list of items needed, “which included seven ‘supers’ for the second act. At the proper time, he had a nearby restaurant bring in seven suppers, very much to the amusement of the actors, who did not hesitate, however, to consume them.”
Then there was the circus. Claude Elder was obsessed. If he wasn’t attending a circus, he was working to bring one to Missoula. In 1929, he and a local railroad conductor, A. J. Lawrence, became Missoula’s only two members of the national Circus Fans Association of America.
Elder, his wife Gertrude and his daughter Catherine would routinely drive long distances to attend a circus. One time they motored to Lima, south of Butte, more than 100 miles from Missoula, to see the Schell Brothers Circus.
Even when traveling on business, Claude couldn’t resist a circus. After attending the Pacific Northwest Stationers’ Association meeting in Spokane (where he was elected vice president), he stopped in Wallace, Idaho, for the Barnes circus, where he had a chance to “shake hands” with Tusco, the show’s star elephant.
When Claude died at age 82 in 1964, his obituary prominently noted that “Mr. Elder was known as the number 1 circus fan in Montana.”
With his death, the business passed to his daughter, Catherine (Elder) Hughes, who operated the business with her husband Blaine until 1980.
Her son Richard Hughes (a self-described “pencil salesman for over a half century”) and his wife JoAnn took over the business after that and are now transitioning the business to the fourth generation of the Hughes family.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com.