Most of life’s decisions are routine and inconsequential. Then again, some turn out to be life-changing.
So it was with two brothers from St. Johns, New Brunswick, who moved to western Montana in the 1890s.
Austin Hartley found work as a timber cruiser for the Northern Pacific Railroad.
His younger brother, Napier Hartley, established a very popular confectionery shop in Missoula’s Florence Hotel.
But everything changed in 1898. Napier Hartley couldn’t help himself. Gold had been discovered in the western Yukon Territory, and the rush was on. He had to go; the lure was too strong.
As writer/poet Robert W. Service put it in his famous work, The Spell of the Yukon, “I wanted the gold, and I sought it; I scrabbled and mucked like a slave. Was it famine or scurvy – I fought it; I hurled my youth into a grave.”
Young Napier provisioned himself, said goodbye to his brother and headed north, leaving his business and his ties to Missoula behind.
I’m not sure exactly what happened to Napier, but he certainly had a long life – still alive and living in Redwood City, California, in the late 1950s.
Austin’s life, however, is well documented and the subject of today’s story.
When he took over his brother’s confectionery shop in the Florence Hotel, he quickly showed his natural instincts as a businessman. He immediately expanded the store – creating Missoula’s first soda fountain.
On opening day, crowds packed the sidewalks downtown from the Florence to the north end of the Higgins Avenue Bridge!
His entrepreneurial instincts quickly became apparent.
He became involved in the movie business, taking over the Union Theater, where his first showing, the movie “The Human Frog,” delighted audiences. He also operated the Bennett Theater at 109 East Front St.
Then it was on to other ventures, including insurance, real estate, and the hotel and laundry businesses.
But he also knew how to have fun – and he loved to fish.
Now while some of the fishing stories were undoubtedly true; others were suspect. Did Hartley and fellow Missoula businessman A. M. Stevens, who often went fishing together, really have such awful experiences that they eventually refused to fish with one another?
Or were their stories of unexpected, unusual or superstitious occurrences just humorous inventions by the pair?
I’d guess the latter, given the following: Austin and A. L. Stone (famed journalist and University professor) had been the only two Montana members of the Idaho Hilarity Club, a group which as the name implies, loved having fun on hunting and fishing ventures.
He and Stone were so influential, the Idaho club would come over to Montana every summer to camp, hunt, fish and have a “truly hilarious time,” in the Burnt Fork area of the Bitterroot.
Unfortunately, in 1905 Montana imposed what the Idahoans considered “an excessive non-resident license fee for hunting,” and the group withdrew to their own home ground. Austin Hartley was said to be “much disappointed” that it all had to end over a $25 tax on out-of-staters.
With that as background, I read an old Missoulian article from 1905, headlined: “Austin Hartley Has Hoodoo!” It implied Austin actually believed in the old Caribbean religious practice of spirit-possession and sorcery.
Both he and his friend A. M. Stevens were renowned, expert fishermen, bringing back heavy strings of trout when fishing alone. But when they fished together, nothing good ever seemed to follow.
In one trip up Lolo Creek in 1904, Stevens apparently broke the pair’s bait container, resulting in Hartley never forgiving Stevens. His remarks at the time, wrote the Missoulian, “have since been expunged from the records.”
Similar events occurred in a later fishing trip up the Blackfoot and a third outing in which the 14-pounder on Hartley’s line broke free just as Stevens approached to help.
Hartley said he was done! But Stevens convinced him in 1905 to give it one last try.
Just as Hartley boarded Stevens’ wagon, a speeding automobile frightened the horses, which “went in the air, then darted down Higgins Avenue pell mell,” requiring both men to grab the reins to control the runaways. Hartley “alighted from the rig and from that day has kept a solemn vow never to go fishing again with A. M. Stevens.
In later years, Hartley moved to Sunset, where he served as the town’s first postmaster. The government, in making the appointment, said there were too many towns called Sunset, so Hartley changed the name of the community to Greenough, honoring a long-established local family.
He operated a small store there, but by the 1950s, in his 80s, he retired, staying with his daughter, Mrs. Ruth Hall. He died January 9, 1959.
Austin H. Hartley was one of those early Montanans I wished I had known. It was a delight discovering his story.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.