Bricks and Mercantile memories for Mother’s Day

Hundreds of people lined up in downtown Missoula on Sunday to take home a commemorative brick from the Missoula Mercantile. Others rummaged through piles of dusty brick for garden projects. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Hundreds of people rummaged through thousands of bricks on Sunday, looking to take a piece of the Missoula Mercantile home for posterity on an otherwise blustery Mother’s Day.

From ornamental decorations for the chicken coop to paper weights on the office desk, the ideas were as abundant as the memories of the building that anchored Higgins Avenue and Front Street for more than 100 years.

“There was the record shop, the cosmetic counter – it was a place you went,” said Renee Selleck, who stood in line with her husband, Gary, for a piece of history.

“We got an old kerosene lantern that we found in our attic, and the only place we could find a wick was at the hardware store at the Merc,” she added. “It’s part of Missoula – it’s part of what I did growing up.”

Selleck, like several others who participated in Sunday’s brick giveaway, now claims an extensive collection of historic Missoula bricks.

When the old St. Patrick Hospital was razed in 1999, Selleck took a brick to remember the building – a portion of which dated back to 1889. And when a piece of the cobblestone street was pulled up on North Higgins, she acquired another brick.

Carma Gilligan also claims a collection of local bricks, each holding a memory of a place that was. She began shopping at the Mercantile back in 1959, and while she’s a self-professed Bobcat, the Merc was always a special place.

“The shopping, the cosmetics – they always had one piece of everything,” said Gilligan. “You couldn’t get a duplicate there. I loved the basement and going to the hardware store.”

While the bricks represent a rich piece of local history, to some, they also represent progress. The historic Mercantile had sat empty for several years, falling into disrepair before it was purchased by HomeBase Montana and slowly deconstructed over a period of months.

With the Mercantile now gone, HomeBase plans to construct a Marriott hotel on the downtown corner, complete with ground-floor retail and dining, and an internal museum to commemorate the property’s merchant past.

HomeBase sponsored Sunday’s giveaway, which included free Big Dipper Ice Cream and 1,000 clean bricks with a golden Mercantile plaque – a special keepsake for many.

HomeBase Montana, which plans to develop a multi-million dollar hotel and retail project on the Mercantile property, salvaged 1,000 clean bricks from the old building and emblazoned them with a plaque for Sunday’s free community giveaway. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“We’re really glad to be able to share some of the Merc history with everybody,” said Jed Dennison, a broker with Zilla State Realty, which helped broker the property’s sale. “We have some new artifacts that were found during the deconstruction that are in a special preserve space. Everyone can see them latter in the mews once the new building is constructed.”

Members of the Daughters of the Revolution also joined in on Sunday’s activities, looking to sell postcards and art depicting the Mercantile during its glory days at the turn of 19th century.

Blanche Tate, a member of the organization who admits to being eager to see the new hotel take shape, often ran errands for her husband at the old hardware store. She still remembers the ladder hinged on rollers.

“When we first moved here, I had to go down with a list of hardware for my husband,” she explained. “There were nails and screws, nuts and bolts. The guy took the list and got up on the ladder that went all the way to the ceiling on rollers.”

“What (HomeBase) is going to do with (the property) is wonderful,” Tate added. “How they’re doing it, I think it’s just wonderful. It’s very special of them to be this thoughtful.”

Don McCammon, who grew up in Missoula, plans to use his commemorative brick as an office weight.

“My earliest memory is of the elevator that had an elevator operator for everyone to go up between the different floors,” he said. “Things change in this town over the years.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com