MILES & ULMER COMPANY of Miles City has the distinction of being the only business in eastern Montana founded prior to the coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad and still in the active service of the public. The following outline of its history is the record of the steady and substantial growth of an organization which has been an integral part of the business and community life of Miles City for more than three-quarters of a century. From the first log store building of 1879 to the modern and finely appointed building of today is a far cry, but in each of the intervening years Miles & Ulmer has been in constant touch with the needs and opportunities in its field, and has contributed its full share of stability and strength to the business fabric of the state. So much of the color and intimate personal background of the area is written into the carefully kept records that a social historian would find them a mine of absorbing data, but this narrative confines itself to the facts of a notable firm’s career in commerce.
The firm was first known as Miles & Strevell, when it was founded in the winter of 1879. Earlier that year a young man named Charley Strevell arrived from Pontiac, Illinois. His cousin, George M. Miles, was already established there, and held a position as paymaster’s clerk at old Fort Keogh. The two decided to enter the hardware business, and to that end built a log store with a front of lumber and glass. On the roof was a large sign reading “Hardware and Stoves.” Partner Strevell later acknowledged that the two youn men had been rather “nervy” to set up in competition with such well-established firms as Broadwater Hubble and A. R. Ninninger, each of which was capitalized at about a quarter of a million dollars. All stock in trade arrived either by ox team, or by river steamer up the Yellowstone. On occasion, a curious potential customer would watch a delivery being made to the new hardware store, spot something he wanted, and buy it before it had even been unpacked. The Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1881, in the second year of the firm’s existence. There were early adversities in the form of a flood (1880) and a fire (1884). In the fire, the building and stock of good were a complete loss, but the building was insured. The year 1884 marked another historic event in the annals of the company, the partnership of Miles, Strevell & Ulmer being formed. A vivid description of the store in the early days of the triumvirate is contained in the company record.
“From the ceiling hung pots, kettles, coffee pots, water canteens on big hooks. Scores of birdcages for bird fanciers seemed more prevalent then than now; and elaborate parlor hanging lamps all chastely draped in mosquito netting to keep flies off the painted china bosom of the shade. Also on the ceiling were straps for harnesses, and wire clothesline. A customer coming in would give more attention to Miles, Strevell and Ulmer’s ceiling than most tourists do to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and point, and say, ‘I want this.’ The walls were lined with drawers to the ceiling. High bicycles built for one were on the floor, so was a lawn mower, and an elaborate ‘flush system’ of a toilet and bearded Plumber Parmley dancing in close attendance on the plumbing supplies for sale . . . Across the radiator (the building was heated by steam, boiler holding forth in the basement) were pelts. General arrangement is – hardware to the left, china to the right. This hold true today as then.”
Regarding the above reference to plumbing, the articles of incorporation in 1905 show that the firm was qualified to install as well as sell plumbing fixtures, and they also sold stoves, roofing, spouting, steamfitting equipment, building materials and home furnishings. It was the first firm in town to stock farm machinery, and they also carried spring wagons, camp tender’s wagons and sheep wagons.
It was on March 8, 1905, that Miles & Ulmer Company was incorporated, under its present name. George M. Miles was president and George Henry Ulmer vice president, Jason D. Miles treasurer. Founding partner Charley Strevell was not in the new organization, as he had moved to Salt Lake. In 1917 the capitalization was raised from thirty thousand dollars to one hundred and fifty thousand. The original articles of incorporation ran for twenty years, and in 1929 Miles and Ulmer Company was reincorporated, for a period of forty years, with Marion (Ulmer) Brown and Wallace Ulmer sole owners.
In 1937, the hardware store was moved from the spot it had occupied since 1882, into a new building on a busier corner. Wallace Ulmer, who had taken over management in 1929, had bought the building from Mrs. Nat Levine. Also in 1937, a branch story was established at Hardin. The Forsyth store of Miles & Ulmer was founded in 1943.
To afford a contrast with the description of the store’s wares in the early days: Today’s stock in trade bear the labels of American’s leading lines, John Deere, Frigidaire, Atkins, Disston, True Temper, Winchester, Remington, Super X, Wilson sporting goods, Wear Ever and Mirro aluminum, Wheary luggage, Delta and Skil power tools. The management estimates that the main store at Miles City stocks between ten and fifteen thousand separate items. Modern trends at the long-established store include sending their young salespeople to Frigidaire school or to John Deere Tractor school – all to the end of keeping the name of Miles and Ulmer where it has been for well over three-quarters of a century – in the front rank of Montana’s merchandising establishments.