Often when “Nuggets” are written they are about historic structures in Helena that occupy a prominent location in the city and have well documented history. For example, the state Capitol, also described as the Crown Gem by some, is clearly visible from most roads approaching town and it is constantly in the news because of the activities it houses.
The Cathedral of Saint Helena is also easy to see because of its immense size as well as a location sitting at the top of a hill above Last Chance Gulch. The Carroll College campus and the Helena Civic Center are other examples of a place or building that is quite noticeable to even a casual observer.
Sometimes a name, not a building itself, will spur interest in a place. Do you think anyone ever drives or walks up Last Chance Gulch without wondering what the name of the street means and why it was chosen? And the Gulch leads you to another historic landmark that shares a long history with all of of these Helena places -- the Fire Tower. While not as impressive as the bigger, more visible structures, without the vigilance provided by the folks keeping watch in the Guardian of the Gulch some of the buildings might not be standing today for us to enjoy!
All of the above examples are truly Helena nuggets and there are many others that could be added to the list. I am sure many of you have a favorite or two in mind. My list would certainly include The Broadwater, the Power Block, the Atlas Block and numerous homes in the residential area on the upper west side. The point is, we are all very fortunate to be surrounded by such wonderful examples of the past that are constant reminders of our heritage.
For many years I have walked, driven, or ridden my bike throughout Helena and enjoyed the marvelous architectural history that we are blessed with in our community. I try to be observant of such things and I enjoy ﬁnding details on buildings that I may have overlooked. Things like a decorative weather vane on many of the turn of the century homes or the thumbprint on the Securities Building.
I have lived on the west side of Helena for many years and have logged many miles traversing its streets ﬁnding new gems. It’s amazing what you can see if you take the time to truly absorb where you are and open your eyes to the history that surrounds us.
Like I have already stated, many gems are easy to see. But sometimes, there are truly hidden nuggets that sit quietly, calmly, and unnoticed for years. At least to the general public.
Imagine my surprise when several months ago I read a story in the Independent Record about a property in Helena that had been nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Even more surprising is the fact that the building is within a few blocks of where I have lived for nearly 50 years.
I have passed by the structure numerous times, played with my kids in the park adjacent to it, and yet failed to know that there was anything special about it. The property is not stately like the state Capitol or grandiose like the Cathedral, but it has a unique charm and history that has been well preserved over many years by its owners. It is a gem without a doubt!
The property is located in the alley between Harrison and Monroe avenues, which is directly across the street to the west from Hawthorne Elementary School. It is a two-story American Foursquare building constructed in 1890 for businessman George Washington Shaw and his wife Eliza with stone that was quarried on Mount Helena since the Shaw family also owned the quarry.
It was originally built to house a team of horses, a carriage, a hired hand and storage for feed. It had a distinctive cupola to provide natural ventilation for the animals. The design by architects Carl Neuhausen and Frank Williams was a well proportioned, attractive building 1893 Shaw converted the carriage house to an industrial facility that manufactured baking powder and pancake ﬂour. Shaw’s Best Factory is signiﬁcant in Montana history because it was Montana’s ﬁrst successful food manufacturer and only ﬂour milled from Montana grown wheat was used in the manufacturing process. It was best known for its pancake ﬂour, which was distributed statewide by three generations of the Shaw family.
Although Shaw’s Best ceased production in 1918, the Shaw family continued to own and live on the property in the residence directly east of the factory. Unfortunately, in 1933 some children playing with matches started a ﬁre inside the factory which damaged the roof extensively and completely destroyed the cupola. Over 20 years later in 1954, Abbie Shaw Pope, the daughter of George and Eliza, moved out of the house and eventually sold the property to Joseph and Patrica Sidor in 1956.
For over 66 years the Shaw family had owned the property and preserved almost all of the original manufacturing equipment related to the Shaw’s Best operation. What happened next is even more interesting. The Sidor family, and children Dan and Nancy who have been the owners of the property from 1956 until August of this year (65 years), also meticulously preserved the workings of the factory.
I was very fortunate when earlier this summer Dan provided a tour of the factory and as I listened to him explain the history of the operation, I could easily visualize the pancake ﬂour being processed. I could hear the whir of the electric motors and see the various pulleys being turned by the leather belts as this millwork transferred the electric power to the various pieces of equipment.
I envisioned an operator adding ingredients from the various barrels of the supplies to be mixed for the next batch of ﬂour. The air was ﬁlled with ﬂour dust as folks hurried to package the end product into the round tins for distribution to customers throughout Montana. It was if I had stepped into a time capsule and needed to get to work running the mixer for the next batch of ﬂour. In short, it was a enjoyable moment of living history for me!
Not only did Dan and Nancy preserve the equipment, but they worked with Ellen Baumler of the Montana Historical Society to complete an application form nominating Shaw’s Best Factory for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. It includes a very thorough history of the facility and was the source of much of the information used in this article. I doubt there are very few properties anywhere that have had only two families own it for over 130 years. However, it is also a major reason that this story is even possible. The history and preservation of a unique facility was obviously very special to both owners.
In conclusion, I believe it is valuable for everyone to see, and appreciate, not only the easily recognizable nuggets like the state Capitol or the Cathedral, but also those smaller, less obvious hidden gems that have stories to tell us. Sometimes a little gem like this shines the brightest in a treasure chest full of nuggets!
Tom O'Connell is the former administrator of Montana's Architecture and Engineering Division and a member of the Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council, which provides the monthly "Nuggets From Helena" column for the Independent Record.