The Belgrade Mercantile building, which has stood for well over a century, has housed nearly every kind of enterprise imaginable at the corner of Main Street and Broadway.
Grain once was hoisted by a hand pulley and rope elevator to be stored on the second floor. Because the building was strategically located near the railroad track, the second floor also once housed a bordello, from which the women who worked there could call out the windows to the railroaders working down below, says Mike Libster, the developer who in the mid-2000s completed a thorough renovation of the historic structure.
Over the decades, eateries and retail establishments of all sorts made their home in the mammoth structure. Lee & Dad’s grocery was located in the building for years. During the building’s 21st century renovation, upstairs spaced was even converted temporarily into an indoor driving range, where golfers could come and hit balls during the winter months.
And below ground, business flourished through the years in the 8,700-square-foot excavated basement, which at one time was home to an earthworm farm and a game processing plant.
In the 1990s, Libster rented space in the building for his own business, Spas and Sports Unlimited, before he changed course and decided to go into real estate. He says his tenancy sparked his interest in restoring the mammoth structure into the high-end commercial building that anchors Main Street today.
It is a role that the building once known as “The Big Brick” or “The Big Block” also played during Belgrade’s formative years. In 1965, Ronald J. Iverson recounted the structure’s history in his book, “Princess of the Prairie,” noting that it eventually became the largest department store in the region, but it was not Belgrade’s first. Thomas Quaw was the proprietor of the city’s first mercantile, but it burned to the ground in 1893. Quaw rebuilt the business in 1894, but welcomed friendly competition from his friend T.C. Power, who shortly thereafter began construction for his own operations. In 1896, Power built a structure that would be called “The Big Brick” in the block between Broadway and Weaver. The building was described by Iverson as “easily the most imposing in town.”
“The Big Brick” became home to Power’s Belgrade Mercantile Company, which “was one of the town’s first and at one time the largest department store in southern Montana,” according to a Belgrade News article celebrating the city’s centennial in 2006.
Power continued to expand his operations after the turn of the century. Iverson wrote that “Company officials elected to completely revamp and expand facilities in 1908,” including an expansion to the west of the mercantile building. In 1909, plans were unveiled for an addition that, including the 1908 addition, would “have a frontage of 130 feet and depth of 125 feet, with two stories and a basement. This building … extends nearly half a block along N.P. Avenue (now Main Street), at the corner of N.P. and Broadway.
Libster believes that expansion to the corner occurred in 1915, the structural evidence of which was uncovered when contractors “took it down to the brick” during his renovation.
In its heyday, Iverson wrote that “The main floor of the building was reputed to have covered more square feet of floor space under one roof than any other store in Montana. This floor housed exclusively the store’s different departments, and the greater part of the second floor was used for furniture, house furnishings and beddings, while a series of office rooms occupied the remainder of the floor.”
Known as “the store that sells everything,” the Belgrade Company could be described as a “forerunner to Walmart,” said Jason Karp, city planning director. After The Company went out of business during the Depression, Karp said, the Mercantile building was carved up into various spaces and uses, and then fell into disrepair.
“It was in pretty sorry shape when he (Libster) took it over, but it certainly looks good now,” Karp said.
Libster’s renovation of the 32,500 square feet of above-ground space uncovered all sorts of interesting artifacts, not the least of which is its sturdy foundation built on bedrock. “This one’s probably going to be around a long time,” Libster predicts for the future of one of Belgrade’s most recognizable and historic structures.