Friday, July 31, 2009

Montana Stories

Last weekend was full of people telling stories. My favorite was from Steve's mom Betty, who had just returned from Missoula, Montana visiting her brother Art (Annie, Tim, Sophia and Betty drove straight through, 17 hours). I would love to meet Uncle Art, who gave us a good deal on my wedding ring and sounds like someone from my own extended family-- a character.

Art has the entrepreneurial spirit I associate with his father, so it clearly runs on both sides of Steve's family. When Art was a young dairy farm on his parents' farm in Faribault, Minn., with a wife and a few kids, he kept his eyes open for a Dairy Queen franchise. And one day a friend called and said there was one for sale, advertised in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that morning, though it was in Missoula, Montana. Art and his wife got someone to stay with the kids and headed West on an Amtrack train. The porters on the train were very taken by his story and told him to be sure to take the Saturday train back when they would be returning to Chicago. He did, and by then he'd bought the place.

When he started, he found out pretty soon it would be a tough business. One customer came in and asked him if he knew the previous owner had gone bankrupt. "And he hung himself in the bathroom right back there," the customer said, pointing. Well, Art had known, but it hadn't stoppped him.

His big break came when the company he bought hotdogs from delivered footlongs instead of the regular size ones by mistake. He called and asked about the mistaken order. They said it was OK, to go ahead and keep the footlongs at the same price. Art ran some ads for his footlongs for $1 and served them sticking out of the shorter bun. It was a huge success, and there were lines out the door. The footlong hotdog on a short bun is still a feature of the Dairy Queen at Higgins and Grand in Missoula.

Another thing he did was to trim the unwieldy hedges in front of the store to look like a soft-serve ice cream cone. He fixed the place up, did some landscaping, and he put a lot of energy into writing jingles that he ran on the radio. Always advertising-- he still has some of those ads in his house today.

These days he's retired, though he was up to three Dairy Queens, and his family still runs two of them. From his house up on the top of the bowl that is Missoula, he can look through the big picture window with his binoculars and see the original store at Higgins and Grand. He likes to check it out and see how busy it is. That is, when he isn't busy talking to the coin dealers he knows around town, or organizing his watch collection.

He made many trips back and forth from Minneapolis to Missoula on the train. One memorable trip he was on the train with Muhammed Ali. They played Old Maid for hours and hours, and Muhammed Ali signed one of the cards for him. He has the picture one of the porters took of them hanging in his living room.

I really do hope I get to see it someday.

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