Harmon’s Histories: After devastating fire, a look back at Harlowton’s Graves Hotel
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
It was a dark and stormy night. Well, it actually was a dark and stormy night. What can I say?
The lightning flashed, the thunder boomed, and the rain poured down. The lights in town went out. The operator at the electrical plant reported “the switch board became so hot that you could not touch it with the bare hand.”
It was feared the much-promoted grand opening of the town’s newest landmark “would be a failure.”
But at exactly 9 o’clock, the guests arrived at the newly completed Graves Hotel to “the most elaborate electrical display ever shown in this part of Montana. The whole building dazzled with numerous electric lights.” It was Saturday night, June 19, 1909.
Then, just the other night, February 12, 2023, the building dazzled again, but not from a light display. Fire ripped through the building, and by dawn the Graves Hotel was reduced to rubble, despite the efforts of fire departments from all over the area.
Posts on the Harlowton Connection Facebook site summed it up: “Sad day in Harlowton.” “To say this is heartbreaking is a massive understatement,” “From your Big Timber neighbors: What a great loss to your community in many ways.”
Back in 1909, the week of the grand opening in Harlowton was quite something. The circus had just visited town (the Gollmar Brothers circus, with a menagerie of elephants including “the smallest baby of its kind in captivity”).
The city band was practicing its special selection of music “prepared for the occasion” of the grand opening, and “the hotel lobby and dining room were festooned in the colors of the flag, and costly bouquets of cut flowers gave a finishing touch to the decorations.”
The Harlowton News declared, “The Graves hotel is a building of which the citizens of Harlowton are justly proud. Mr. Graves, the promoter, has received numerous compliments and expressions of gratitude for his push and business foresight in erecting this hotel. It is attracting attention all over the state, and is rapidly becoming popular with the traveling fraternity.”
“The opening ... marks Harlowton as a town that is capable of taking care of trancients (sic) of all classes in a manner that would do credit to a much larger city.
“The advertising that will result from the service that will be afforded after the formal opening will have far reaching effects upon this town and community. J. N. Kleber, the manager, is an experienced hotel man and has the goodwill of a large number of the traveling fraternity.
"His wife and two daughters are a great help to him in managing his enterprise and already they have become popular for their little attentions and courtesies around the hotel.”
Another highlight of the Saturday evening gala was the opening of the dining room. “A sumptuous banquet will be spread there and a most enjoyable time is to be expected.”
The first official guest to sign the register was Mrs. E. M. Jenizen. The local newspaper noted that this fact “is a note of small interest at present, but when the town is a few years old it will be a matter of more than ordinary interest.”
It was also noted that “Mrs. Van Cleve has secured rooms at the Graves hotel for the summer. She has a large amount of property in town that is now on the market, and will give as much attention to the sales as she can.”
Mrs. Flora Ross was quick to advertise her services at the hotel: “...she is now ready to do all kinds of facial and scalp massage, either hand or electric vibrator, also hair dressing. Prices are reasonable and all work is guaranteed.”
With all the interest generated by the grand opening, “Mr. Kleber reports that he is compelled to purchase more beds to accommodate his numerous guests.”
Business was so good that, in the following year, “Mr. Olson, the proprietor of the hotel, made arrangements with a first-class orchestra, consisting of a harp, clarinet and drums to play in the dining room during meal hours.
“This move on the part of the progressive proprietor adds great popularity to that hotel, and will prove a good advertisement for it.”
It’s always sad to see the demise of historical buildings, but – what great memories we have of the heyday of the Graves Hotel.
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 best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.