Cafe’s reopening sparks memories of 10th Ave. Grocery


Western Heritage Center

When this aerial photo was taken in 1926, the 10th Avenue Grocery was 4 years old and was known as Sam Chicas Grocery. At upper left is the Deaconess Hospital building, then under construction, and McKinley School is at upper right. The grocery store, now Harper & Madison is at mid- to lower left, the long, white, rectangular building that looks so much different from all the nearby houses.

Joanie Swords has reopened Harper & Madison. That’s a good thing. What “Yellowstone Valley Woman” (one of my favorite local publications) has called a “quaint eatery … for people of all walks looking for baked goods made in-house, coffee, lunch and camaraderie” had been closed for remodeling since Christmas Eve.

Look for Harper & Madison on 10th Avenue North—sunny side of the street—between North 31st and North 32nd streets.

An elderly friend and I enjoyed a meal and some of that “camaraderie” one recent morning at Harper & Madison. I say elderly because he’s on the other side of 75, but also because he’s one of the few living souls who’ve known me all my life. Over servings of Gallo Pinto (rice, black beans, fried plantain, egg, chili sauce) my elderly friend confided that years earlier—many years earlier—he’d been Harper & Madison’s first diner.

“How many years earlier?” I asked, knowing that Joanie Swords hadn’t opened her doors until 2011. “Oh, it wasn’t a restaurant then,” he said, and he began to describe his occasional treks, as a toddler in the mid-1940s, to what was then the 10th Avenue Grocery, for a miniature box of Sun-Maid raisins.

Each adventure began at home, at 1016 N. 28th St., a block north of the Deaconess Hospital. (Don’t look for the Deaconess Hospital; it’s disappeared into the Billings Clinic. Don’t look for 1016 N. 28th St., either; it’s vanished into a clinic parking lot.) And each adventure’s goal was a little red box of Sun-Maid raisins at the 10th Avenue Grocery, three and a half blocks away.

Sightings along the route would be astonishing in 21st-century Billings (not least the vision of a solitary 4-year-old walking along 10th Avenue North). Through memories poignant if not precise, my elderly friend shared a few of those wonders with me.

The journey would often begin with a chat at 1014 N. 28th St. (cf. parking lot above), where an old man named Oscar lived with his middle-aged son Robert. Oscar, an immigrant from European shores, would often tell the toddler how he’d spent his first months in America eating apple pie because it was the only thing on the menu that he could pronounce. Robert was the window dresser at the then-famous Hart-Albin Department Store, several blocks due south (somewhere after North 28th had become the more elegant Broadway).

When he grew to be as old as Oscar had been, my elderly friend learned from his even older brother that there had been a Missus Oscar, too, and that she had been generous with her cookie jar. Indeed, he said, his brother remembered asking their mother whether Oscar’s Missus should be warned that she was running low on Graham Crackers.

My friend didn’t recall benefiting from the Missus’ cookie jar, but he did remember how the idea of a daily wedge of apple pie had appealed to the toddler. And he recalled, too, that the toddler had seen Robert’s windows at Hart-Albin’s, and had thought that window-dressing would be interesting fun.

In the mid-1980s Robert Fulghum wrote in “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” (another of my favorite reads): “When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic.” In his toddler days my elderly friend took the advice before Fulghum had given it, especially when crossing North 29th, 30th, and 31st streets, all of which lay ominously between him and the Sun-Maid.

Speaking of astonishing sightings, in the 1940s North 30th Street was a boulevard, with narrow lanes northbound and southbound separated by a ribbon of lawn with shrubbery and trees all in a row. How far north, or south, did the ribbon stretch? Not even our toddler was that intrepid.

North 31st Street safely negotiated, another half block brought the toddler to Harper & Madison—then known as the 10th Avenue Grocery—where he would ask for the Sun-Maid, pay his dime, pocket his change and beat his way back home. Sometimes he’d munch his raisins all along the return, “watching out for traffic,” of course. Usually, though, he took the little red box back to 1016 N. 28th. There, sitting on the curb, his feet dangling from his little legs and into the gutter, he’d watch the traffic and savor the Sun-Maids.

Oscar, his Missus, and their son Robert are no more; their home—like my friend’s—is gone. The curb-and-gutter on North 28th looks improbably shallow for feet-dangling. Hart-Albin is remembered in name only; shoppers nowadays flock to malls where, during my friend’s toddlerhood, corn fields grew. The ribbon of lawn that once so graciously separated narrow lanes of traffic on North 31st? It was rolled up decades ago, in deference to the imperatives of the automobile (cf. parking lot above).

On the other hand, Joanie Swords has reopened Harper & Madison and that’s a good thing. It’s not the 10th Avenue Grocery; it’s better. (Try the Gallo Pinto.) And through memories poignant if not precise, my elderly friend has shared with me a stroll along the sunny side of 10th Avenue North.

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Vienna and in Red Lodge.

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