By Jim Harmon

I suspect you may not be familiar with the name Morris Reece Chew Smith. I certainly wasn’t.

M. R. C. Smith (as he was more commonly known) was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1866. He married Miss Russie Donley in 1895. They had no children.

He was passionate about violins and violin-making. Those who knew him praised his work for its “excellent workmanship and tone.” But violin-making was just a hobby. To pay the bills, he worked in the insurance and hardware business.

He came to Missoula in 1899, initially working as a clerk for well-known retail hardwareman
J.P. Reinhard and later started his own hardware store.

Morris Reece Chew Smith - 1942 newspaper photo
Morris Reece Chew Smith - 1942 newspaper photo

So far, Smith’s story is fairly common - shared with many Missoula families who can trace their roots back to the turn of the century. So why should we know this man?

Well, Morris Reece Chew Smith was Missoula’s 16th mayor, serving from 1903 to 1907, and more importantly, he had a dream for the city that wouldn’t be realized for over one hundred years.

It all started on the night of March 24, 1903, when an offshoot of the local Socialist party gathered at the Missoula County Courthouse.

The political convention was to have begun at eight o’clock but, according to observers, there was considerable “skirmishing” over procedures and delegates didn’t get “down to business” until 9:30.

The night’s main purpose was to nominate a slate of candidates for municipal offices, including mayor.

Newspaper Clipping - Nominations for Mayor by Municipal Ownership League
Newspaper Clipping - Nominations for Mayor by Municipal Ownership League

Two names were put forward for that position: M. R. C. Smith and R. N. Summerville. Smith won 32-4, and went on to be elected mayor by a 46-vote plurality in a field of three.

No sooner was he sworn in to office than Mayor Smith was entagled in a brouhaha. In February 1904, a group of taxpayers filed a court petition calling for a grand jury to investigate “the immoral conditions prevailing in Missoula.”

They alleged there was “gambling and corruption” in the community and claimed the mayor and other city and county officials should be investigated for “malfeasance in office” for not upholding the laws.

In his defense, though, the mayor did suspend Police Chief Charles Hollingsworth for failing to carry out his orders to enforce gambling law violations.

But I must digress. I’ve failed to fully explain that “offshoot of the local Socialist party.” The group’s name was actually the Municipal Ownership League and it had two main tenets.

The league was very supportive of local schools, proclaiming: “Missoula is the educational center of Montana (and) special safeguards should be adopted here which will protect the youth of the community.”

But as the name of the group implied, its main goal was municipal ownership of city utilities, particularly the water system, but it didn’t happen.

In 1905, Smith ran for re-election. It was a nasty campaign. Opponents claimed he was selling his hardware business and was planning to leave town.

Smith acknowleged he was considering selling, but only because the owner of the building in which his hardware store was located “had advanced the rent to a higher figure than he could afford to pay and that he couldn’t secure a suitable location on any of the principal business streets.”

He told the local press he “had no intention of removing from the city and would probably engage in some other enterprise.”

Smith won re-election by a 193-vote plurality in a four person race.

His years in office (both as mayor and a school trustee) “were characterized by social and civic improvement in Missoula. It was during this time period that Paxson, Willard and Whittier School buildings were constructed,” according to the Missoula city website.

M. R. C. Smith was also the “Grand High Priest of the Royal Arch Masons of Montana and served as Deacon and Elder in Missoula's Christian Church.”

Ex-Mayor dies of heart attack - 1942 Newspaper Headline
Ex-Mayor dies of heart attack - 1942 Newspaper Headline

Morris Reece Chew Smith died of a heart attack in August 1942 while fishing with his friend, County Surveyor Charles Dimmick, along Lolo Creek near Fort Fizzle south of Missoula.

As for the water issue, it would take over one hundred years, multiple water-company ownership changes, lengthy legal maneuvering and multiple court cases (not to mention millions of dollars) for another city council and another mayor, John Engen, to aquire the privately-owned water system in 2017.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at