Harmon’s Histories: Collapsed downtown building held century of stories

Jim Harmon

If walls could talk, the stories they would tell.

Some of those walls fell down this past week under the strain of a heavy snow load on the roof at 310 W. Alder, in downtown Missoula.

Until recently, the collapsed building housed K&C Meats. The adjoining structure, the late Fran’s Second Hand, still stands, though it’s been closed for some time.

Those are today’s headlines.

The real stories are to be found by turning back the years.

There you’ll find connections to prominent Missoula businessmen of the 1800s, three unmarried socialite-daughters, an early day assistant librarian, a popular bar, a series of grocery and meat markets – and cock-fighting.

John Martin (J.M.) Keith was born in 1859 on a farm in rural New Brunswick, Canada. He and another immigrant, Thomas G. Hathaway, came to Missoula in the 1870s.

John Martin Keith

Both men became involved in the Missoula Mercantile empire in the 1880s, then went in separate directions.

J.M. Keith moved on to banking, real estate and public service, T.G. Hathaway to lumbering and his own mercantile venture.

Over time, Keith joined the Masons, Elks and Knights of Pythias, served as school board chairman and became the only person to hold the office of mayor of Missoula at three separate, non-consecutive times: 1891, 1895 and 1907.

He and his wife Hattie also bought up real estate around Missoula – lots of real estate.

On the 30th day of January 1905, J.M. and Hattie signed a warranty deed transferring some of their lots in the Higgins Addition to his friend T.G. Hathaway’s daughter, Josephine L. Hathaway, “an unmarried woman resident” of Missoula and her two sisters, Miriam and Fanny. Sale price: $1.

Those lots are the site of last week’s building collapse.

Why the lots were deeded to the young women is unclear. We do know that all three were very prominent in Missoula’s social circles.

We also know Josephine owned her own home on the south side of the river and that she became the assistant librarian at the newly completed Carnegie Public Library (now the Missoula Art Museum) about the same time as the land transfer.

In the next few years, part of the property was leased to Tom Farley, who opened a grocery store.

When the building was cleaned out in the 1940s, the remnants of Missoula’s famous – or infamous – rooster fights were discovered: cages, arena boards and the like.

It’s said that the cock-fighting scene was centered in the Railroad to Broadway and Higgins to Woody area in the early days of the 20th century.

The Standard Meat Market operated on part of the property from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Josephine Hathaway, still listed in legal paperwork as “an unmarried woman” in 1946, finally sold her lots to R.D. Mercer.

By September of that year, Mercer was granted a beer and liquor license by the city and opened the Sunshine Bar, which became a popular hangout for area composers and musicians for more than 20 years. It closed in 1969.

In late 1959, Jim and Ann Caplis took over the Standard Meat Market, converting it to K&C Meats. They later expanded into the area occupied by the Sunshine Bar. The space was vacated in recent months after a high-profile dispute between the elderly Caplis and state inspectors.

In 1992, Fran Lawrence moved into the corner part of the property to operate Fran’s Second Hand Store & Stuff. She retired and closed the business in 2016.

Now the property, partly dormant and partly collapsed, awaits the next entrepreneur, the next J.M. Keith or T.G. Hathaway.

Who knows what stories the new walls will tell in centuries to come?

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.