Historic building holds memories for Lewistown’s old-timers

By: 
JIM DULLENTY

This building on Main Street once housed a fruit and grocery warehouse. Built in 1925, it is the subject of much discussion about whether it should be preserved. Photo courtesy of Duane Ferdinand

There is a lot of talk in Lewistown these days about a modest-sized nondescript brick structure that some call the mill building but which originally was the fruit and grocery warehouse. It may look smaller than it is because it is located next door to a larger, more imposing building –also made of Lewistown brick– that is reportedly soon to become a brewery and a restaurant. Both buildings were once part of the Central Feed (later Westfeeds) complex located across Highway 87 from the Yogo Inn. Whatever the fate of this building, its future has generated a lot of talk. If it were just another ugly building located somewhere in Lewistown, there would be no story. But it just happens this vintage building is an historic structure, much beloved by many older residents, and it is prominently located right on Main Street. Ellen Sievert, now of Great Falls, in 1983 was survey coordinator for the Montana Historical and Architectural Inventory. It was Sievert who said the original use for the building was as a fruit and grocery warehouse. She also said it was built in 1925. The fruit and grocery warehouse is where residents – or at least, grocery stores – once picked up fresh fruits and vegetables hauled into Lewistown on the Milwaukee Road. Thus it is of considerable interest to older residents, historians and those seeking to preserve Lewistown’s heritage. Unlike other Montana towns, most of Lewistown’s vintage buildings are still standing. These include the recently renovated Montana Building, the beaux arts revival-style Judith Theater Building and the beautifully restored Brooks Building. Starting about where the fruit and grocery warehouse is located, the traveler can drive up Lewistown’s gulch, a man-made canyon of tall, ornate edifices on both sides of the street. This journey lasts for several blocks, ending at the mission-style Fergus County Courthouse, resplendent in its colonial Spanish facade, just beyond Seventh Avenue. There really is no other place in Montana, and few in America, where you can have such an experience. These dramatic structures are there because once the homesteader boom went bust – and most buildings date from that early 20th century era – people were too poor to tear them down. Whatever the reason, Lewistown is the proud inheritor of these banks of historic buildings and some Lewistown residents are determined to keep them there. The fruit and grocery warehouse is intimately connected to home winemaking, according to several long-time residents who remember it. June Donaldson, Denton, recalls it was a warehouse called Ryan’s Wholesale House. Individuals did not go there; it was where grocery stores got their groceries, Donaldson said. However, she remembers her dad went there to get grapes for home winemaking. Donaldson said she never went into the building, but she knew what it was and she is certain it was a wholesale grocery in one year – 1949. Her family had moved to Great Falls where they lived for six years. They returned to their farm at Kolin in 1949. Shirley Barrick, Lewistown, remembers that the fruit and grocery warehouse was where her grandfather got his grapes for winemaking. “My grandfather, Peter Kovacich, an emigrant from Croatia, homesteaded on the Divide in 1908. He carried on his family’s tradition of wine-making,” Barrick said. “To make the wine he and many of his friends got together and ordered white grapes from California. This was at harvest time, in August or September.” Barrick said this was in the 1940s and the building was used for fruits and vegetables for many years. Sievert, in her survey report, said the fruit and grocery warehouse is “original construction on the original site” and the structure “contributes to the masonry character of the community.” No local tax money would be used in any restoration of the fruit and grocery warehouse. Funding for that effort would come from local donations, grants, fund-raising and the like. The Historic Resources Commission is presently awaiting a report by an architect and structural engineer to learn if the building can be restored and at what cost. If it cannot be restored, then the building will be lost to the wrecking ball. But if it can be restored, the Historic Resources Commission may seek approval from its owner, the City of Lewistown, to renovate it and put it to public use. A decision to do that has not been made by the Commission. Many possible uses could be considered for this building including making it a visitor’s center, installing bathrooms for visitors and trail-users, perhaps making it a haven for motorcyclists and bicyclists to get out of the weather and many other possible uses. Remember, most communities do not lose their heritage overnight. They lose it – one building at a time. Jim Dullenty is the chairman of the Lewistown Historic Resources Commission.

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