Harmon’s Histories: Montana’s Manhattan found fame with malted barley, straw paper
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Manhattan is the most well-known of the five boroughs of New York, the heart of the city.
Given that high profile, one can understand a traveler’s double-take when seeing a Montana road sign for an off-ramp to “Manhattan” in the middle of nowhere, or in this case, midway between Three Forks and Belgrade.
Montana’s Manhattan certainly doesn’t have 1.629 million inhabitants like New York’s, but it does have a New York connection.
Originally called Moreland, the Montana town's name was changed in 1891 when a group of wealthy and influential New York businessmen, investors in the Manhattan Malting Company, bought more than 10,000 acres of farmland in the Moreland area to grow barley.
It only took a year to build the first grain elevator with a capacity of 275,000 bushels, and another year to finish the malting plant.
According to company records, they “purchased a Jacob Price Field Locomotive steam plow in order to farm (the) land. The plow was the first of its type used in Montana and could plow 40 acres a day.”
The records, stored at the University of Montana, indicate “the company was building worldwide fame (thanks to) its first brewmaster, Louis DeKregnasis. (His) product was (popular) across the country and was especially liked in Germany.”
“In 1905, the Manhattan Malting Company sold its land to the Manhattan (Ranching) Company. The malting company continued to grow and in 1914 won the award for best malted barley by the Pabst Brewing Company in Milwaukee.”
“The company could not, however, overcome Prohibition. The plant closed early in 1915 when Idaho, Oregon and Washington became dry states. The company was forced out of business in 1919 when Montana passed Prohibition on 1 January 1919.”
“The malt house was condemned after the earthquake of 1925, but the farm houses of the company are still standing today and are occupied. Many of the older citizens of Manhattan still refer to the buildings as Number One and Number Two, as the malting company designated them.”
“Harry Altenbrand, Jr. was the Manhattan Malting Company manager from 1905 until it closed. His house is now the Masonic Temple in Manhattan.”
But the malting business was just one the Manhattan enterprises initiated by the New York entrepreneurs.
In the fall of 1898, the Helena Independent newspaper reported, “After years of waiting, Montana is to have a paper manufacturing plant. The prime movers of the enterprise (are) Henry Altenbrand, president of the Manhattan Malting company, George Kinkel Jr., its general manager at Manhattan, and M. R. Kennedy of Danville, N.Y.”
The new plant was designed to convert straw to pulp, something Kennedy had been doing at a Danville, N.Y., facility for 15 years before the straw supply back East dwindled.
The Helena Independent quoted Kennedy saying, “The Manhattan plant will not be an experiment. We know what we are doing. (While) our plant will be the only one in the United States converting straw into pulp, Germany (has) 40 plants manufacturing paper from straw (and) Russia also has a number.”
“There was a time,” noted the newspaper, “when all of the paper used by American newspapers was made from straw, but when wood pulp was introduced it at once crowded out the straw-made article because of its cheapness.”
“Now the tables are turning (as) the wood pulp plants are stripping whole forests and already the question of supplying the raw material is an extremely serious one to large concerns.”
Recently some entrepreneurs have attempted to revive the straw-paper industry, but with little success. Columbia Pulp, headquartered in Dayton, Washington, was among the latest to throw in the towel.
In a February 2022 news release, the company said, “More than a decade ago, Columbia Pulp was founded with a vision to utilize wheat straw to create an alternative fiber pulp ... for paper and packaging applications” but conceded that times have changed, forcing it to “idle operations.”
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. 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.