By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

The First Interstate Bank building currently occupies the southeast corner of Higgins and Main in downtown Missoula – but it wasn’t always so.

At the turn of the 20th century, two other notable businesses were located there: the Star Theater and the California Wine House, operated by Messieurs Thibedeau and Lee.

Part of the Central Saloon, the California Wine House promoted itself as “the only exclusive wine house in Missoula,” selling wine by the glass – either 5 cents or 10 cents – depending on the size and variety.

A wine bar over 100 years ago? And we all thought it was a new idea, just conceived in recent years!

There was food, too. “The hungry man will find everything to suit his palate ... first-class lunches of every description will be served from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.”

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Thibedeau hired “Rudy” Wischmann as his chef, who specialized in “the merchants' noonday lunch,” including beer or wine.

The fact that Thibedeau was in business at all (much less, successful) is remarkable. He was illiterate. He couldn’t speak English. That led some folks to take advantage of him.

In one instance, lawyers for Thibedeau, his wife Sue, and business partner Dennis Lee had to take their case alleging deceptive practices by Western Loan and Savings Company all the way to the U. S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court sided with Thibedeau, stating that he had “applied to the defendant’s agent for a loan of $7,000, payable in monthly installments of $140,” but that the loan company “mislead and deceived” him about “the rate of interest,” which was far above the 10% Thibedeau had proposed.

The court also concluded that the agent for Western Loan & Savings Company had known Thibedeau “was illiterate, of French parentage and unfamiliar with the English language, (yet) knowingly permitted Thibedeau and the other complainants to believe that the loan was based on the terms Thibedeau requested.”

1908 clipping from federal lawsuit.
1908 clipping from federal lawsuit.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the first time the Western Loan & Savings Company was called out publicly concerning various questionable practices.

In April 1902, J.E. Pamplin responded to an article in the Missoulian newspaper concerning himself and the Western Loan & Savings Company under the headline: “The Nerve of J.E. Pamplin.”

In the article, Pamplin was accused of “dishonest dealings with the citizens of Missoula ... collecting money fraudulently,” something he denied “in every respect.”

He claimed he had left the employ of Western Loan in 1901 to take a position at the Salt Lake Tribune, only to be enticed back to Western Loan in Missoula by what sounded like a better offer.

“Every dollar I collected from people in Missoula, I had authority to do so from the Western Loan & Savings Company. I was their representative and the only compensation I was to get for my labors was the loan fee of $1 per hundred from the applicant,” upon loan approval.

The trouble was: The company wasn’t legally supposed to be doing any business in Montana, having apparently “failed to comply with the laws of the state.”

Everything came to a head when the Missoulian newspaper sent an overdue bill “against the Western Loan & Savings Company, contracted for by Mr. Pamplin,” to collections.

Western Loan refused to pay the bill, saying: “We presume Mr. Pamplin ordered this insertion (and) was entirely unauthorized to do so, and the company cannot assume responsibility for it, and must ‘respectfully’ decline to pay.”

The newspaper, however, was “completely satisfied” that Pamplin was the “authorized agent” for the loan company, adding: “The company places itself in no favorable light in repudiating him.”

Meantime, Thomas Hubald Thibedeau, despite the fact that he was illiterate and spoke no English, did quite well with his businesses on East Front Street.

The man, born in Grand Isle, Maine in 1867, died March 25, 1920 in Deer Lodge. He was only 52 years of age. He was buried in Missoula.