The Bon Ton Building: A History

The Life of a Downtown Building

Article by Crystal B. Alegria

Photography by Content Creative Lab, Gallatin History Museum

Originally published in Bozeman City Lifestyle

When you walk down Bozeman’s historic Main Street, look up:  The architectural and historical details of the buildings are often missed. Many of those walls could tell some great stories.

That is the case with the historic Bon Ton Building located at 34-42 West Main Street in Downtown Bozeman, located at the southeast corner of Main Street and Willson Avenue. This two-story brick building has four storefronts on the ground floor with a stairwell leading to four apartments on the second floor.

This brick block was built in c. 1890 by the firm Sebree, Ferris, and White (SFW). This business partnership was formed in 1882 by three men: Howard Sebree, Edward “Eddy” Ferris, and Benjamin White. Their business involved banking, general merchandising, and agricultural implements that operated in Butte, Dillon, and Bozeman. 

SFW formed their business in Utah where all three men lived before arriving in Montana Territory. The business of this firm followed the construction route of the Utah and Northern Railroad, requiring frequent moves along the construction line. As the railroad came to an end in Montana Territory, the three men settled with their families in what would soon become the State of Montana.   

When Bozeman was founded in 1864, buildings were built of wood-frame but by the 1890s brick buildings were the standard, a sign that Bozeman was not a temporary boom town but a substantial community that was going to stay and grow.  

By 1886, the local Bozeman newspaper, the Avant Courier reported that the firm of SFW was “busily engaged erecting the most extensive agricultural warehouses and sheds in the territory, and in connection, there will be built a large, 2-story brick for their store and hardware business.” By 1890 the building was complete. Shortly after, the occupants of the four ground-floor retail spaces included harness and carriage shops, and a printing office. By 1891, the Chronicle newspaper office had moved in along with the U.S. Land office and an agricultural implements store. In 1912, there were harness, hardware, tin, and meat shops.  

By 1914, Eugene Graf had obtained the property and located his bakery in the corner storefront of the building. Graf was a baker from Munich. His family came to the United States in 1907 and to Bozeman in 1914 where he opened the Bon Ton Bakery. In the early days of the bakery, Graf and his family lived in an apartment upstairs.  Graf’s greatest claim to fame is bringing sliced bread to Montana. In 1935 he installed a “Slice-Wrapper,” offering the first machine-sliced bread in the state.

In 1928, Graf worked with local architect, Fred Willson, to remodel the building, giving it a Spanish Colonial Revival makeover which is still present today. With Graf’s purchase of the building came a new name: The Bon Ton. Bon Ton was a Victorian expression that means The Finest.

The Bon Ton Bakery operated out of this location until 1954 when Eddys Bakeries purchased the Bon Ton Bakeries, located in Bozeman and Billings, and renamed them Uhlrich’s Bakery, which operated from 1954 until about 1960.

The four commercial bays of the building held a variety of stores from the 1920s to the 1970s including some long-term businesses:  The Mode – a women’s clothing store at 36 W. Main, from c. 1940 to the mid-1970s; Modern Cleaners at 40 W. Main from c. 1929 to c. 1935; Kiddieville, a children’s clothing store, at 34 W. Main from 1954 to the early 1960s.  

More recently, Music Villa, then owned by Fred Decker, moved into 34 W. Main in 1982. They eventually expanded into rock ‘n’ roll-style clothing and opened “Fred’s Threads” next door at 36 W. Main, where Moka Montana is located today. Fred’s Threads closed in 1990.  Music Villa moved from this building in 2000 to its current location at 539 E. Main Street.

Today, the occupants of the building include Visions West Gallery (34 W. Main), Moka Montana (36 W. Main), Plume Bridal (40 W. Main), and Alara Jewelry (42 W. Main).  The building sits within Bozeman’s Main Street Historic District and is a reminder of early Bozeman and the vision of three pioneering businessmen.

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