By JEN SLAYDEN
Ask anyone in Bonner, West Riverside, or Milltown where they used to go buy milk, coffee, or groceries and more than likely you will hear a variety of responses: Milltown Market, Finky’s or Disbrow’s: different names depicting the same building. Just east of the Blackfoot River, up until a few months ago, Milltown Market was showing its age and neglect. Sitting on the market for nearly five years, it appeared to be heading into the history books for good. However, the old brick building is now getting an opportunity to house new stories, thanks to buyer’s Jesse Fortune and his business partner Alex Duman.
Jesse and his wife Katie often drove by the market heading to Seeley Lake or Great Falls. They often wondered about the iconic building and, as a structural engineer, Jesse felt that it was a shame the place was deteriorating day by day. So when the opportunity arose to purchase the decrepit building, Jesse and Alex made their move. What they didn’t realize at the time was they bought more than they bargained for: years of stories and community love for the market and its rich history dating back to the turn of the Century.
One glimmer of this history began by a twist of fate. As Jessie and Alex looked to restore the outside brick and realized the only option was to repaint, they contacted and hired Brodie Ellis. As the conversation unfolded, they found out that he is the great grandson one of the building’s former owners: the Disbrow family.
“My memories of the market were at a very young age. I remember my great grandparents living upstairs, the old rail system for unloading trucks to the basement, the fresh produce, and the fresh cuts of meat behind the counter. It was great having family in and around the store. There was always someone who knew your name or if they didn’t; they soon would,” said Brodie Ellis.
Indeed, the market was a community hub. In the twenty-one years I have lived in Bonner, I would frequent the market before it shut it’s doors and would always run into someone I knew. I had a routine on Sunday mornings to walk the dog down to buy eggs and a Sunday paper. I enjoyed not having to go into a huge gas station or drive all the way to town.
But my time out here frequenting the market pales in comparison to the memories of Jim Willis, who still resides in Piltzville. Jim was born 86 years ago this November in Milltown, delivered at home by his grandmother. As a child, Jim has many memories of the market, then owned by Oscar Hemgren. One in particular was around Christmas time every year when Hemgren would sell a ton of Lutefisk (a Norwegian/ Swedish dish) and stack the lutefisk skins outside on the sidewalk. The smell was never to be forgotten!
Jim laughs when he remembers an open electrical socket near the front door where him and his friends would get in line and touch it to see if they would get a little shock! But he mostly remembers that the store had a great reputation throughout the years and phases of being a market, general store with post office, gathering place, and butcher shop when Disbrow’s owned it. “People from Missoula would come out to Bonner to buy Howard Ellis’s sausages. It was said he made the best potato sausage in the country!”
According to Herbert Ellis, grandson of the Disbrow’s, the market was the first General Store in Milltown.
“There were other stores in the surrounding area at the turn of the century but as the time went on it became the only store with the combined supplies, goods, meats, and general merchandise.
The store was sold to Oscar Hemgren before 1908. He came from Sweden as a boy and he and Mr, Sutton became partners in the business. Albert Dufrensne, who later became my uncle had worked for Oscar as a young man.
On Dec 7, 1941, my Grandparents, William (Bill) and Monida Disbrow, bought the RED and WHITE from Oscar Hemgren. Oscar had to travel to Washington DC to get a clear land title because the Anaconda Co. and the railroad actually owned the land as was the case for most of Milltown and Bonner.
At that time the store had no water plumbed into the store. It had only block ice for refrigeration and was truly a general store.
It had a wide variety of supplies from shoes to grain. The store had a post office and it was a common practice to “charge” all of the sales.
It cashed the checks of the millworkers on payday and delivered orders to local families– hauling boxes of groceries all the way into the home.
It had an elevator and many unusual things that had to go away when the highway change from the front of the store to the back which forced the complete remodel to change the store front. While doing this remodel, an apartment was added to a second story to which became my grandparents’ home.
Disbrow’s IGA was born and it became the main staple with a custom butcher shop. Much of the same serving the community practices with charging to families, cashing company checks, and home delivery stayed in effect into the 1960’s.”
The elevator is something that was mentioned to me by several old-timers in the community. It seems it was a common childhood memory. Others mentioned that the highway originally was on the backside of the market- east of what is now the black footbridge. The main entrance was moved once highway 200 was built.
Herbert continues: “The store has been a focal point for the community for fellowship, meeting place, emergency help, and a landmark.
It is a part of countless lives over the years, in different ways that is very uncommon in the time we live in now. This was the real deal when you think of ‘Mom and Pop’ stores.
As kids we felt blessed to be able to race around the store in grocery carts while waiting for Christmas or Thanksgiving dinners with my grandparents. We felt good that we had the best training we could get to have a good work ethic. We learned that the customer was always right unless they were not, and then we did what was right.
When my mother (Helen) and my aunt (Ann) married, my father (Howard Ellis) and uncle (Albert Dufrensne) they became partners into the store. When my cousins, sisters, and myself were young, we all grew up working in the store.
I have memories of famous people to the unknown that impacted my life by just happenstance, or maybe by design, just because they stopped by Disbrow’s.
My mother and father sold out to my uncle when my father answered the call into State Government and moved to Helena. The store ran for a few more years before retirement called my aunt and uncle. It was then sold outside the family but as long as it stands it will be dear to my heart.”
Herbert’s sentiments ring throughout the Bonner/Milltown community. Last month at the community council meeting, Jesse was introduced and talked a bit about his vision for the market. The crowd was visibly receptive and grateful for the possibilities that lie ahead. Restoring the original building with a modern twist and once again become a gathering spot to create new memories are what Jesse and Alex hope to accomplish. This is welcome news for the company town that has been through tremendous changes and challenges in the last twenty years.
“It has been hard to drive by the last few years and see the building fall apart. I am so happy that Jesse and Alex talked to me about this project. It is an honor to work on the building that my family has so much history and memories. I have a cousin who is working for me as well whose mom worked in the store. So it is in some ways come full circle.
Disbrow’s began with hard work and sweat and now is coming back to life as the Milltown Market with hard work and sweat; with some of the same family and family values. My grandpa and grandma Ellis worked and owned the store for a while, my dad Herb and his four sisters (Kathy, Kris, Margy, Rose) all worked at the store, My Great Uncle and Aunt Dufrense worked and owned the store for a while as well, “ says Brodie Ellis.
The Milltown Market story continues, as it is now remodeled and back up for sale. With the Kettlehouse brewing site in Bonner, the new Milltown State Park opening soon, and the announcement of a new amphitheater being built, changes continue to come to the community. For more information or to view the property, call your Realtor or JEN SLAYDEN at 370-0300. MLS #21612652
Jen Slayden wears many hats: Mother, Real Estate Agent with Main Street Realty, teacher for the non profit music program Center for Music, UM alumni, runner, and supporter of all things local. Her RealChange program dedicates a generous amount of her Real Estate commissions to be given back locally to organizations of her client’s choice. You can find her on Facebook, or give her a call at 406-370-0300.