From gardens to textiles, Missoula honors its historic businesses

Caras Nursery & Landscape employees Molly MacDonald and Kelsey Mueller tend to flowers in the nursery on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Starting a business is a feat unto itself, but operating one for more than three generations requires a lot of hard work and dedication.

Many of the historic businesses that helped to shape Missoula’s character are still going strong today, and the city plans to honor five of them during May: Historic Preservation Month.

In fact, a Missoula preservation celebration and awards ceremony will take place on Thursday, May 2, at 5:30 p.m. at Caras Nursery & Landscape, 2727 S. Third St. W.

Bill Caras is a third-generation owner of Caras Nursery & Landscape, which operates in the same Orchard Homes neighborhood as it did 123 years ago. His business, along with Missoula Textile Services, the Union Club Bar & Grill, Bob Ward’s Sports & Outdoors and Missoula’s Office City, will receive Heritage Business Awards from the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission.

“I’m pretty devoted to my business, and I like to feel like we’re part of the fabric of Missoula,” Caras said. “We’re only a small part of the fabric of Missoula, and there are a lot of parts to it. But it’s a nice feeling to have these historical businesses that are a part of that fabric, and then you look at what an interesting mosaic Missoula is.”

Caras Nursery & Landscape owner Bill Caras holds photos taken of the plant nursery business in the 1930s and 1940s. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Originally known as Missoula Nursery, the business was bought by Caras’ grandfather, James K. Caras, in 1920. The 15 acres have seen dramatic change since, with only one original building still standing: Caras’ childhood home.

At the start, greenhouses were made of glass and wood, and were heated by coal and hot water, Caras said. Coal was delivered by boxcar; later variations of greenhouses were heated with natural gas.

“When I’m digging out for things, sometimes I find deposits of burned-up coal,” Caras said.

Flowers and plants were delivered to buildings in downtown Missoula back when travel around town was difficult, and the plant nursery business was strictly a spring job. Operations today go year round.

“We’re a little different from how this was operated, but our spring business is a lot like what their spring business was. Pansies and petunias, and there are a lot of things different and a lot of things the same, even after 100 years. It’s pretty remarkable,” Caras said.

Caras took over in 1977, and began expanding the selection. The nursery hires about 60 to 70 employees during the growing season, and now offers a landscaping service as well.

“Ever since I started, I’ve been highly motivated to always be adding on, always improving,” Caras said. “I think it’s really easy for business owners to kind of become jaded and quit reinvesting. I think that’s a big mistake, but I understand because you do a lot of things that don’t work. I just feel like if we’re going to be around for the long-term, which we have been, I can’t sit back and watch everything wear out. That’s part of my philosophy.”

The heritage businesses honored at Thursday’s event will be part of a new historic business registry, and will receive a window cling signifying their long-lived status, said Emy Scherrer, historic preservation officer for the city of Missoula. Other businesses will be awarded over the next few years.

“It’s kind of a tool for providing education and promotional assistance for these local businesses,” she said. “It’s for Missoula citizens, but it’s also for tourists because that’s sort of a growing want in the heritage tourism industry: to go to the oldest restaurant, or the oldest market or hotel.”

The award recipients were staples of Missoula’s business community in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the city became a railroad town with a booming timber industry.

“We were a pretty important stop for going west,” Scherrer said. “So we started providing those services for people who were coming through, not only for the people who actually decided to settle down, but a lot of people coming through on the railroad too. We were a pretty big stop.”

Missoula’s Office City is another of the heritage award recipients, having provided paper goods and office furniture and supplies from a downtown storefront since 1916, when it was owned by former Montana Gov. Joseph M. Dixon.

Old photo from Richard Hughes of Missoula’s Office City at its current location on West Broadway in the early 1940s.

His grandfather bought the company in 1920 when it was in the Florence Hotel, then Richard Hughes’ parents led the operation later, and Hughes took over in 1985. In 1939, the business moved to its current location on West Broadway.

Recently, Hughes and his wife JoAnn retired, and passed the business down to his children, making it a fourth-generation enterprise. The award is humbling, Hughes said.

“It’s definitely an honor,” he said. “As people say, the odds were against us to make it this far. The average timeframe of a retail store is probably seven years, because people get burnt out. But there are lots of reasons why businesses fail. It means a lot to us because of our Missoula heritage and the history of Missoula.”

The business has provided office furniture for companies like ATG and larger entities like the University of Montana. From the typewriter, to the invention of the modern ballpoint pen during WWII, to a competing online store that now has over 60,000 products available, Missoula’s Office City has adapted over the decades.

Their endurance is due to hard work and honesty, Hughes said.

“You have to be honest with the customers and put them first before profits. If you do that, then the profits will come,” Hughes said.

Recognizing the importance of Missoula’s history is necessary, Scherrer said, and businesses are a big part of that.

“These are places that most Missoulians interact with on a day-to-day basis,” Scherrer said. “It’s part of that subconscious of Missoula.”

Reporter Mari Hall can be reached via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.