All in the family: John Valach and Son, Inc. celebrate 100 years of business

By 
Charlie Denison
Reporter
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Joel Valach, left, and his father, Bob, share a laugh after finishing a day’s work of masonry at the Post Office Monday afternoon. Joel, who was worked for his dad the past 11 years, is the fourth generation working for John Valach and Son, Inc.
Photo by Charlie Denison

 

For the past 100 years, there is one thing in Lewistown that hasn’t changed: a Valach is available for masonry work.

In 1916, John Valach – then in his early twenties –founded an independent business doing a variety of brick and stone work. Despite his age, the young man from Moravia, a historical country in the Czech Republic, was well versed in his trade, having been selected for an apprenticeship in Vienna, Austria at the age of 12.

“He was really lucky to get an apprenticeship,” said Bob Valach, grandson of John and current owner of the practice, which has been called John Valach and Son, Inc. since 1990.

“Learning a trade was a privilege,” added John’s son, Frank, now 98.

Last week, Frank and Bob took some time to visit about their father’s journey and the legacy he left, starting what is now the longest-standing masonry business in Montana, Bob said.

And much of John’s story, Frank said, was “just a stroke of fate.”

“Not long after his apprenticeship World War I hit, and John was disinterested in going to the service. He took off, deciding he’d either go to the United States or Australia – whichever ship came first,” Frank said. “He came to America, arriving in Ellis Island. That must have been tough. He didn’t know the language. He didn’t know anybody. I don’t know how he did this stuff. He ended up in Kansas and Nebraska because there were a lot of Czechs there.”

While in Nebraska, he heard about free land in Montana, Frank said, so he and a friend hopped a freight train and came to Central Montana to homestead.

“He found his way to Lewistown and started building chimneys pretty quick,” Frank said.

Pretty early on in his masonry days, John took a job rebuilding a chimney, and, while on the job, he met his future wife,

“He built a chimney and also got a wife,” Bob said.

“And they had eight kids, including me,” Frank added.

From there, business picked up fast for young John, Frank said, as he got a lot of jobs doing brickwork, refinery construction, concrete work, fencing, tile and more.

“He was very versatile,” said Frank. “He built the original swimming pool in town and he did a lot of other work, too, including extensive work on the Lewistown Municipal Airport. He made some money there, which was good, because he had some tough years. One year he only made $200, but he was a good provider no matter what. We were never hungry or cold. He did the best he could.”

John persevered, Frank said, working hard and pushing through the difficult times. He did so by sticking by his principles, principles Frank said he’s stuck with, as well.

“He’d always say ‘don’t work too hard but get lots done,’” Frank said. “He also would say ‘start real slow and finish fast. He was particular and neat. He was  a good worker and he was good to people.”

Impressed by his dad’s work ethic and persistence, Frank followed in his footsteps, taking over the business in 1946 after returning home from the Air Force.

It was then, Bob said, the business became John Valach and Son, a business focused on putting safety and quality first, a motto that stays true today.

“We are persistent about safety,” said Bob, who took over the business, “and, as a result, we’ve had very few injuries in our 100 years. The only two I can think of were minor. A guy got sand in his eye once and another chipped rock on his finger. And, as for quality, well, we aren’t always the cheapest, but we’re always the best.”

Enjoying the trade, Frank, who had three sons of his own, started sharing working on projects with Bob, who, at 18, really started taking to it.

“I enjoyed the work right away,” Bob said. “Masonry is one of the few trades that isn’t something you just get rid of. The products are lasting and, with a little maintenance, the structures will last forever.”

That being the case, there are many, many buildings in Lewistown the Valachs did extensive work on the Bank Electric Building, St. Leo’s Catholic Church, the Post Office, the Yogo Inn, the Art Center Building, the Eagles Club, the Fergus County Courthouse and countless others. Their work included building in the outlying areas and such iconic Montana buildings as the Castle Museum in White Sulphur Springs.

“Between my grandfather, my dad and I, we’ve done hundreds and hundreds of fireplaces, lots and lots of brick houses and every school in and outside of town,” Bob said.

But, primarily, their work is done in Central Montana, and in 100 years they’ve covered most of it.

Bob’s wife, Susan, said the extent of what John Valach and Son Inc. has done in town continues to amaze her.

“Just the other night, Bob and I were driving home from dinner downtown and Bob was saying ‘I worked on that building, I worked on that building, I worked on that building,’” Susan said. “I finally just told him ‘why don’t you point out the buildings you haven’t worked on? Because it was almost every building in Lewistown.”

 

Passing the Torch

As the third generation of Valachs, Bob said it always means a great deal to him to work on buildings his father or grandfather either built or worked on before him.

“I really enjoy restoring masonry buildings my grandfather and father built originally,” Bob said. “For example, the horse barns at the fairgrounds were built by John in 1917. It’s really neat to do the restoration on buildings he built originally.”

And, now, Bob is starting to see the tables turn yet again, as his son, Joel, the fourth generation, is also part of the team.

“I’ve been working on projects with my dad since high school,” said Joel, now 28. “It’s been fun.”

Regarding the anniversary, Joel said it means a great deal to him to be a part of a business his great-grandfather started 100 years ago.

“It’s kind of an accomplishment,” he said. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Bob added.

This being the case, the Valachs are going to celebrate their centennial, Friday, Aug. 26 from 4-7 p.m. at their shop located at 101 Valach Road off the Truck Bypass.

“We welcome all of our past customers to come and celebrate with us,” Bob said.

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