Harmon’s Histories: A tale of Missoula’s Caras family
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Most everyone in western Montana has heard of Caras Park. It’s the home of the Carousel, the downtown Pavilion, Out to Lunch, Downtown Tonight, various brew-fests, the Clark Fork River Market, the River City Roots Run and much, much more.
But what’s with the name, Caras?
Well, the Caras family in Missoula dates back to the late 1800s – specifically, to two brothers named Sam and Jim.
Sam left Missoula November 4, 1912 to fight alongside his countrymen in World War I. He returned February 25, 1914. Sam was so impressed with the Greeks’ tenacity, he told a newspaper reporter, “They ran straight ahead, no matter who was in front of them...we lost 118 officers (in) our first fight.”
Sam turned out to be quite an inventor, as well. In 1919 he created a unique container “used in the delivery of plants.” The wire structure was designed to prevent damage to “delicate fronds, leaves and stems.” Click here to check out patent No. 1,708,752.
But, his passion was the family businesses. He was “glad to get back (to Missoula)” and join his brother Jim in setting up the Garden City Fruit company, “an unpretentious fruit stand at the north end of Higgins avenue.”
A few years later, Jim purchased the Missoula Nursery, west of town, and integrated it into his existing downtown fruit and floral business. Today, that nursery thrives in the Orchard Homes neighborhood on west Third street, just off Reserve.
It was back in that post-war era that the Garden City Fruit company initiated its great summer watermelon picnics at Greenough park. It was a childhood dream come true – all the watermelon you could eat...free!
A local newspaper promoted “Watermelons in profusion, gobs and oodles of it. Everyone is welcome and everyone is guaranteed to dream of mountains of watermelons tonight.”
“Several wagon-loads of cold, juicy watermelons will be given away to everyone,” announced Caras in August, 1917 (8,000 pounds of melons were cut up and served that day).
The next year, 3,000 people showed up for the annual event, going through 15,000 pounds of the “watery fruit” nibbling it right down “to the white and then calling for more.”
By 1921, the Missoula’s Kiwanis club was holding its annual picnic on “the grounds of the Garden City Floral company and featuring a “barbeque of roast lamb and (as had become a tradition) watermelon and ice cream, which Mr. Caras will dispense with his customary generosity.”
Around the same time, Missoula leaders started a fundraising campaign to build a public swimming pool. Again, Jim Caras stepped in with a free watermelon picnic. “Two pretty girls with boxes under their arms smiled the crowd out of their change ($20.48) as the people lolled in the shade of the trees recovering from the effects of many rounds of watermelon.” Caras also made a cash donation and a gift of a thousand carnations to be sold to raise money for the cause.
In the years following World War II, Jim’s sons George and James stepped into the business. James ran the nursery and George ran the floral shop.
Then in the late 1970s, the third generation took over.
Bill Caras (James’ son) made huge improvements. The nursery itself expanded greatly and a number of buildings were added including the Christmas store and “Wild Birds Unlimited.”
Famed Shakespearean actor and Missoula orchardist Daniel Bandmann once remarked, “Who ever stands in a blossoming orchard and does not feel inspired has no soul.”
Well, James K. “Sunny Jim” Caras and his offspring had soul.
The Missoula Parks Board will honor Caras at the Out To Lunch event, August 24th, by re-dedicating the park in the name of James K “Sunny Jim” Caras, and place an interpretive plaque in the park to tell his story.
The Kiwanis Club will hand out free watermelon slices, in the tradition started by the Caras family more than 100 years ago.
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.