In 1941, young Betty Smading, then only 13, began working as a waitress for her mother, Florence, at the Park Cafe.
“I was in the eighth grade when I started, and I’ll never forget my very first day,” said Betty Scow, who recently celebrated her 91st birthday. “I went back to the kitchen and told my mother, ‘I can’t wait on that guy, he has dirty eyes.’ She said what do you mean? And I said one eye’s brown and the other’s blue.
“She just told me, ‘Oh come on, you’re full of it. You get back out there and take his order.’”
Which she forced herself to do, without incident. The experience taught Betty (Smading) Scow to face her fears, while helping the family business to carry on during the postdepression/prewar years in Helena.
A 20th century railroad/restaurant family
For almost 60 years, the Park Cafe across the street from Helena’s Northern Pacific Railroad Depot was a thriving business for those arriving and leaving the Capital City by way of train.
The restaurant was owned and operated by three generations of women; Hannah German and her daughter Florence Smading, along with help from three other daughters and several of her granddaughters.
Betty Scow is the last surviving member of that original six-some. Recently she reminisced about the history of her family’s operation of the Park Cafe.
James and Hannah German, Betty’s grandparents, began purchasing properties on the 1500 block of Railroad Avenue in the early 1900s.
James German (1862-1932) was born in Montreal, Canada, and grew up in Salina, Kansas. He was a conductor/brakeman for the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPR), beginning his career in Livingston before moving to Helena in 1908. He also owned the Rocky Mountain Bar, current site of Next To Haps.
Hannah (Hegstrom) German (1873-1957) was born in Stockholm, Sweden, before immigrating to Minnesota with her family. Hannah and a girlfriend came out West and went to work at Livingston’s railroad Beanery restaurant, where she met her future husband. Hannah operated the Park Cafe from 1910-1929, and she resided next door for the rest of her life.
The Germans were the parents of two sons and four daughters, including Maurice German (1900-1962), Betty’s mother Florence Smading (1904-1970), Edith Stoner (1906-1991), Robert German (1910-1948), Evelyn “Evie” Juhl (1913-1998) and Lucille “Lou” Backstrom (1916-1993).
Forty years in the kitchen
Florence (German) Smading married Fred Smading (1897-1934), and they had two children, Betty and Don (1929-2010). A Missoula native, Fred was a fireman for NPR. When he died at 37, Betty and Don were 6 and 4 years old, respectively. Florence ran the cafe as the head cook for nearly 40 years, from the late 1920s until its closing in the mid-1960s.
Early on, Florence’s sisters Lou, Evie and Edith also helped work the cafe, as did many of their offspring.
“Our home at 1515 Railroad Avenue used to be a bathhouse for railroaders before Florence and Fred bought it,” Betty recounted. “Hannah ran the Park Cafe at 1509 downstairs until she got older, then my mother Florence rented it from her mother and ran the restaurant. The upstairs of the restaurant building was a boarding house where railroaders would stay when they were in town overnight or for a few days at a time.”
Before refrigeration, the cafe’s walk-in cooler was chilled by blocks of ice from an ice house located next to the railroad tracks. During the 1935 earthquakes, the Capital Hotel — which was located due east of the Smading’s home — collapsed, and Betty, just 7 at the time, remembers that some of the building’s debris landed on their roof.
Fresh steaks from the cooler
Betty said that the Park Cafe’s three shifts included a three-person crew; a cook and a waitress, and the dishwasher would show up after each shift, “who wouldn’t stay all day” unless it was really busy.
There were actually two restaurants in the neighborhood, the other being the NPR’s Beanery across the street.
“The Beanery was part of the train depot and lots of railroaders ate there,” she said, “but, if they knew my mom was cooking they’d come over to the Park Cafe. Mom was the favorite cook; she’d cook breakfast and lunch, then go home and take a nap to be back to cook dinner.
“We always had homemade soup and everyone wanted to have the good soup of the day. Pancakes until 11 o’clock every day were always popular, too, and lots of people loved the liver and onions with bacon.”
Betty’s daughter, Karlee Smith, told about a slab of whole beef that was hung up daily in the restaurant’s walk-in cooler.
“Grandma Florence would cut fresh steaks off and throw them on the grill … nothing better,” Karlee said. “I remember sitting in the kitchen as a kid, eating the best mashed potatoes and gravy. Grandma let us help grind the fresh hamburger, too, on a huge commercial grinder.”
Karlee’s cousin, Shirley Juhl, also described helping her aunt Florence at the Park Cafe.
“I vividly remember standing on a crate, scraping leftovers from the plates into a hole — with a can below to catch the scrapings — on the dirty dish holding table,” said Shirley, adding how the “slop” then would go to a pig farmer in the Helena Valley.
Karlee's brother, Marc Scow, noted that the café also provided gambling punchboards.
The end of Park Cafe
When the passenger trains quit coming through Helena in the mid-1960s, the business changed a lot, according to Betty.
“There were still locals that would come to the cafe, but not as many people worked on the railroad, and no passengers either,” she said. “The family sold the building to one of the family cousins, Jack Smith, who remodeled it into apartments, and the building remains as apartments today.”
Jim and Lou Backstrom lived at 1511 Railroad Ave., while 1515 belonged to Karlee and husband Dave Smith from 1978 to 1990.
Hired for her 'loud voice'
After Betty graduated from Helena High in 1946, where she garnered three chevrons (letters) in the Girls Athletic Association sporting program, she went to work for the Industrial Accident Board.
Betty married Edgar Scow in 1951, and the couple parented six children. She worked as a housewife for over 20 years, until after Edgar died in 1973 at the age of 47. In about 1974, Betty reentered the workforce part time, for Louie’s Grocery.
She was then employed by the Department of Revenue, in the mailroom, where she retired early in 1988. Next came a part-time gig at Buttrey Foods as a food sampler, until she broke her ankle.
While rehabbing at the Broadwater Athletic Club, Betty worked herself into a job helping the water aerobics instructors at Water Aerobics.
For 18 years, from 1998 to 2016, Broadwater traded Betty a free membership for being the classes “megaphone,” welcoming person and social director. She helped with the senior water aerobics program until 88 years of age.
“They hired me because of my loud voice,” she laughed.
Not too bad for a gal who as young teenager was afraid of a guy because of his “dirty eyes.”