Lost Butte, Montana, a book by Richard I. Gibson, is in stores and museum gift shops around Butte. Or order from the publisher. It's also in E-book formats at all the usual places. And read an interview with Gibson, here, and on KXLF here. The Facebook page has many historic photos of Butte, and the Butte-Anaconda NHLD project showcases many historic buildings. Location-oriented posts can be found on HistoryPin. On Mondays beginning in January 2016, look for Gibson's "Mining City History" column in the Montana Standard. Many of these blog posts have been converted to podcast episodes, available at KBMF.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Mantle & Bielenberg Block – 3. Creamery Café

By Richard I. Gibson

Previous posts about the M&B block are here and here
1979 HABS/HAER photo.

The Creamery Café, commemorated in the prominent ghost sign on the east face of the M&B building (and a less prominent one on the west face), occupied part of the ground floor here from 1913 until 1957. The Café moved to the M&B on Broadway following the devastating fire on North Main, its original location.

Theo McCabe and Roy McClelland both came to Butte in 1903, and in July 1903 partnered to establish a restaurant in the basement at 36 North Main Street. Four years later, the Creamery Cafe subscribed to the Independent Telephone Company’s network (phone no. 5058), and the partners each had home phones as well, at 502 South Washington and 662 Colorado, respectively.

36 N. Main St. circa 1904.
In 1911, the Creamery was at 24 North Main, but it hadn’t moved—the address scheme changed. It was still in the basement of the same building, known as the O’Rourke Estate Building. (The building at Granite and Main, Curley’s store today, is the one we think of as the O’Rourke Estate, but the Estate likely owned many properties around Butte). On July 30, 1912, a fire and explosion at about 4:00 a.m. resulted from a worker rendering lard in the café oven and placing the burning container on the stove, where the flaming grease spattered everywhere spreading the fire very quickly. Although “all the fire equipment in the city” responded, ultimately three buildings were lost.

The fire burned out several businesses, wiping out almost the entire inventory of the McDonald Shoe Company, a $22,000 loss. Residents in Mrs. Josephine Bietz’ rooming house on the upper floors barely escaped with their scant night clothes; several ailing residents had to be carried out as the flames reached their apartment doors. Mrs. Bietz had been burned out when her lodging house was in the Harvard Block on West Park, destroyed in the huge conflagration that wiped out the Symons Stores and more in 1905 (Phoenix Block today). Several pets were killed in the fire, but no humans were injured seriously.

July 30, 1912. D'Acheul building at right,
Creamery Cafe in building at left.
The building south of the O’Rourke Estate/Creamery, 20 N. Main (32 N. Main before 1911) was erected before 1891 and for many years housed D’Acheul’s drug store. (See the vignette in this previous post; compare to the 1912 fire photo here.) At the time of the fire that destroyed it, Ley’s Jewelery was on the ground floor there, and the second level held offices and meeting halls; ironically, the Cooks and Waiters Unions met there. The total value of losses was estimated at more than $70,000 at the time, with about $52,000 covered by insurance. Later estimates pegged the total loss at about $49,000.

The three destroyed buildings were replaced in short order by three more, including two that survive today: the Rookwood Hotel/Speakeasy (and BS Café) at 24-26 N. Main, and the three-story building next door which holds a Ley’s Jewelry ghost sign. All the buildings in the rest of the block adjacent to these buildings, all of which survived the 1912 fire, were lost in conflagrations in 1969 (buildings to the north to Broadway) and 1973 (Medical Arts Center fire south to Park).

Sources: Montana Catholic Newspaper (Butte), January 21, 1905, including interior shot of café; Sanborn Maps (1900, 1916); City Directories (1903-1957); Anaconda Standard (fire image) and Butte Miner for July 31, 1912; ghost sign photo from 1979 HABS/HAER survey, via Library of Congress (public domain).


  1. Dick, I take it you are not in favor of repainting the murals? That was my initial reaction as well--especially if there is a proven means to restore them in their faded glory.

    1. Here is what I have expressed to the HPC:

      Like many of you I have wrestled with the problems and implications of ghost sign conservation and restoration. I wish to offer my opinion as a short bullet list of thoughts.

      1. Wholesale repainting, whether by skilled artists or otherwise, is not conservation and in my opinion destroys the historic nature of these treasures. “Tom Morgan for mayor” should be avoided and forbidden; Butte deserves the best.
      2. There are other alternatives for conservation, maintaining the state of arrested decay, which is what creates the appeal of these signs. Look to Fort Collins for an example. Yes, they are costly, but Butte deserves the best. Sign professionals have indicated that modern materials will last 10-15 years, not the many decades that old signs survive, so in the long run, such conservation may actually be cheaper than new repainting.
      3. New murals, for the sake of murals can be beautiful art, educational, and tourist attractions. Those in Whitehall are good examples. Such creations almost anywhere in Butte would, in my opinion, be extraneous detractions from the authentic history that we already have everywhere by the dozen. If we didn’t already know it, the recent analysis by Heritage Strategies makes it clear: heritage tourism is driven by authenticity. Butte’s existing ghost signs are already important tourist attractions, if they are not destroyed by modernization.
      4. I would support the concept of present-day businesses creating their own new wall signs on their own buildings, not interfering with existing historic signage. That would carry on a viable tradition of advertising and place-marking.
      5. It is important that you realize that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, and that there is deep interest and divided opinion in the community. What I primarily request of you is that you honor Butte’s heritage and history, and that you accept the premise that Butte’s treasures deserve the best from all of us. Please do not decide rashly or quickly, because once they are repainted, their historic nature is gone.