Russell’s Clothing celebrates centennial

In 1916 the original store was located on the corner of Highways 12 & 7, now occupied by Scissor Wizard.
In 1916 the original store was located on the corner of Highways 12 & 7, now occupied by Scissor Wizard.

    In 1909, Jenny Lang and son Billy built and operated a General Merchandise Store on the east side of Main Street where the Scissor Wizard is located today.

By Sherry Vogel

This profitable store flourished as new homesteaders settled the area. The business was later sold to a man named Joel Doull. He operated the Joel Doull Clothing Store in the front half of the building. Then Martin L. Russell, who had been managing the first flour mill in Baker, owned by Wm. O’Loughlin, was given the opportunity to rent the back half of the building. He started the first furniture store in Baker.

   We see in the March 30, 1916 edition of The Fallonite Newspaper that Martin Russell purchased an ad to announce his new business. It stated, ‘We beg to announce to the public that about April 10 we will open a furniture store in the Lang Building at Baker, Montana, which will carry a complete line of Home Furnishings. The stock has been selected by our buyer with a view to the necessities and desires of the Fallon County homemakers. You can find here most anything you want and the range is unusually large in quality and cost.’

   In 1923 when Mr. Doull decided to sell his clothing store, Martin Russell jumped at the opportunity to purchase the established business. He discontinued his furniture line and changed the name of the store to Russell’s Clothing. Mr. Russell’s motto was, “If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing well”.

   Russell’s Clothing became synonymous with fine quality clothing. He began selling men’s work clothes, jeans, cowboy boots and shoes for the entire family. He later expanded to men’s suits. In much later years the store would offer a small selection of women’s apparel. Although many people in those early years still purchased the majority of their clothing from mail order catalogs, when they had a little extra money in their pockets, they would purchase a good quality pair of shoes or a fine quality article of clothing from Russell’s.

   Although the Lang estate sold the building to Wm. O’Loughlin in 1924 (for $10,000), the Russells continued to run their store out of this prime location for the next 53 years. Martin ran his store while also being actively involved in the development of the City of Baker. In 1933, he became director of the Bank of Baker. In 1945 after the war, Martin’s son Gene and new wife Marjorie returned to Baker. Gene had just finished serving in the American and European Theater for five years. Upon his return, he went into partnership with his father. When Martin was elected to be vice president of the Bank of Baker that same year, he turned the keys of the store over to his son and Ed Nelson. Mr. Nelson had been working and in partnership at Russell’s for over 30 plus years when he retired in 1973.

   Lynn Mary Russell, Gene’s second youngest daughter, recalls that when her father encountered a family that didn’t have money enough to purchase a winter coat or shoes, he would often times barter with them for whatever they had to exchange (cream, eggs, etc.). Many times he worked with farmers allowing them to write their purchases on a bill that did not need to be paid until their crops were harvested. Gene and Marge operated the store for 32 years.

Gene enjoyed artwork and included his art pieces in the store along with the brands of local ranchers.
Gene enjoyed artwork and included his art pieces in the store along with the brands of local ranchers.

   As the old Russell store building approached 67 years old, Gene decided to build his own building in 1976. He purchased the lot on the corner of Montana Avenue and First Street. He was active in designing the layout of the new store. In September of 1977, Gene retired and Matt Helfrich, who had been employed at Russell’s for the prior six years, bought the business.

   Matt Helfrich and his wife Margaret had moved to Baker in 1966 from Hettinger, ND. Matt was employed at Anfinson’s Fleet Wholesale for six years, until in 1970 Eugene Russell offered him a position at Russell’s. Shortly after acquiring their new store, the Helfrichs moved Russell’s into the new and present location.

   Gene Russell, who was officially retired, stayed semi-active in the store until 1982.

   Matt and Margaret owned and operated the store for 27 years from March 1977 until October 2004. When Matt and Margaret started talking about retiring in the summer of 2004, word of mouth reached Don Beck, a local veterinarian. He started encouraging his wife, Merri, to go talk to the Helfrichs about buying the business. Merri, who had been working at the Bank of Baker for 25 years, and had never considered a retail business, was game. She spoke to Matt and “the rest is history”. Becks took possession of the store Oct. 1, 2004. Helfrich said, “I stayed on at the store for two weeks to train Mrs. Beck. Margaret and I also accompanied her to her first market in Billings, then she just took the bull by the horns and ran it.”

   Beck shared, “One small hurdle we encountered when taking over a store that has been operating for this many years was when life-long customers of Russell’s would come in and would assume we knew their size and the style of jeans they preferred.” Merri enjoys operating the store and the people she works with. “It doesn’t feel like going to work, at times it feels like ‘playing store’,” she said.

   Keeping long-term employees seems to be the tradition at Russell’s. Helfrichs hired Doris Dahl in 1977. When Becks purchased the business, Doris continued on for three additional years, making a total of 30 years employed at Russell’s Clothing. Sharon Buerkle, another long-term employee who is presently working at Russell’s, has been there now for 12 years.

   As far as changes that Becks have instilled during their ownership is the introduction of Under Armour and the North Face labels. This induction of new inventory is now drawing new out-of-town customers to Russell’s. When asked if she had ever considered changing the name of the store to another name other than Russell’s, she replied, “No, the name has been around for a long time and I kept it for sentimental reasons”. Saturday, June 18, many of the Russell family as well as the Helfrichs will be in Baker to help celebrate this 100th year anniversary.