Harmon’s Histories: ‘A magician with a hammer and a hot piece of iron’

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

The face of downtown Missoula continues to change. These days, there’s a new logo on a very, very old building.

The image of a brawny gorilla marks the entrance to a martial arts studio at 218 W. Main St. For years the little building, sandwiched between The Shack restaurant and the Studebaker building, housed Art & Ray’s Lock & Safe (now relocated).

But the history of that building goes back much further. Had you entered the shop in the 1890s, you would have met a strapping Canadian farrier described as “a magician with a hammer and a hot piece of iron.”

Samuel A. Elder’s West Main Street shop wasn’t just any smithy, and Elder was not just any blacksmith. He quickly adapted from general horseshoeing, plow sharpening and wagon wheel repair to a specialty shop, making custom shoes for racehorses. That required an artist.

Rather than making a few adjustments to factory-made shoes from a keg, Elder cut and shaped shoes from lengths of iron bar, accounting for the exact shape of a horse’s hooves, perfectly balancing the weight to match the animal’s gait.

He quickly won favor with local racing enthusiasts, especially harness racers, and began collecting and training racehorses himself. Sam’s skills were so much in demand, he even operated a seasonal shop at the local race grounds, arriving in the predawn darkness to accommodate horse owners before workouts began at 6 a.m.

Samuel Elder, hands on hips, is front of his West Main Street blacksmith shop in 1899.

In fact, Sam Elder and his friend John R. Daily (of local smoked bacon fame) are credited with keeping harness racing alive in Missoula into the early decades of the 20th century. 

And that little blacksmith shop at 218 W. Main became the unofficial headquarters for horse owners and racing enthusiasts from all over western Montana. From the 1890s to the 1920s, Elder and his horse-racing buddies would sit around a stove near the entrance, swapping stories and, as the years went on, remembering the good old days – and the bad old days.

The horse-racing and harness-racing business was tough. In 1911, Elder sold one of his promising colts to a Helena man, telling newspaper reporter Arthur L. Stone, “There’s not much use trying anymore. There’s too much baseball and the like; the horseman is a back number.”

But he kept trying. Despite the setbacks, Elder was so committed to harness racing, he sold the blacksmith shop in 1923 to concentrate on the sport.

Horses await their shoes in the back of the West Main Street smithy.

Over the following decade, Elder put together strings of horses for competition in Montana’s summer fair and race circuit. By 1931, at age 72, he was still regarded as one of the best horsemen in Montana. That was the year his friend John Daily died, bequeathing some of his stock to Elder.

In August, as Elder put together a string of horses for the North American Fair in Great Falls, including those from Daily, he recalled his good friend in a conversation with a newspaper reporter.

Elder said he hoped to do as well as he had in the past when Daily “was still in the grandstand watching the horses come down the home stretch.” After the Great Falls event, Elder followed the circuit from the Pacific Northwest to Iowa, as he had year after year.

But age would soon catch up with him. In a preparatory harness race at the Missoula County fairgrounds on Friday, June 28, 1935, while Elder was in the sulky behind one of his favorite horses, “Dave

The original signage at 218 W. Main St. in Missoula. (Elder family photo)

McKinney,” he suffered a heart attack. 

It’s believed he must have felt the attack coming on, as he left the course and drove to the barn where he was found slumped over. He died a week later at a local hospital.

His wife remembered him through a memorial poem:

Sunshine passes, shadows fall,

Love’s remembrance outlasts all.

And though the years be many or few,

They are filled with remembrance, dear, of you, Sam Elder.

Sam’s son Claude had a similar passion for harness racing and carried on the family tradition. But Claude’s business interests took him in another direction – a downtown retail store that has existed for over 100 years and is still going strong today.

That story, next week.

Note: Some of the brickwork at 218 W. Main St. is still the original, dating to the 1890s. But a historical resource survey concluded that the building is “not known to be associated with persons or events that meet National Register criteria for historic significance.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.