Helena’s New Cooperative—The Original Montana Club

By SUZANNE WARING

The initial scene for Nevil Shute’s 1941 novel, The Pied Piper, opens in a private gentleman’s club in London. The smoking room with a fire in the fireplace provides the setting for one man telling another a long but tantalizing story that took place on the European Continent.

This smoking room in a gentleman’s club would have been a familiar setting to readers. In the late 19th Century and into the 20th, the numerous private men’s clubs that were popular in London provided a place where men of some prominence could relax.

Thought of as a “home away from home,” these clubs included card rooms, pubs, billiard rooms, dining rooms, sitting/smoking rooms, libraries, and rooms where out-of-town members could stay overnight. Following this English model, clubs were soon established in the U.S., and the concept found its way to Helena, Mont., where the Montana Club was created in 1885.

The Original Montana Club became the oldest private club west of the Mississippi, and two men could have easily sat down in front of the fireplace there with one ending up telling the other a story.

The Club’s purpose, upon formation, was to foster “literary, mutual improvements, and social” interaction among its members and the community. Gambling was forbidden by the Club’s Constitution, although that stricture was relaxed in the early 1900s, and slot machines were introduced into the Club following Prohibition.

Initially, members met in various locations, but when the Club’s membership grew, and its purpose expanded, the membership invested in erecting a six-floor building in 1893, on a triangular piece of land at the intersection of Fuller and Sixth with the sole purpose of being an exclusive private men’s club.

Today, a bronze plaque on the side of the building indicates this was also the spot where gold was first found in Last Chance Gulch, an event that paved the way for the development of a town like Helena that would yield an establishment like the Montana Club.

Though a fire destroyed the building in 1903, it was rebuilt and reopened on June 24, 1905. The new Clubhouse building was designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert. Among other structures, Gilbert designed the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., and the Woolworth Building in New York City.

The Clubhouse has housed the Club, and remained an architectural landmark, in downtown Helena for more than a century. With prohibition, two major wars, and the depression, Montana Club membership ebbed and flowed. It dropped to 139 in 1934 but increased to 800 members in 1955.

Not until 1953 were women allowed to join. Until then, women could be escorted to dinner or could use the bowling alley, but if they arrived before their male escort, they had to remain in an entrance room.

The informal bar is in the basement of the Montana Club and was named the Rathskeller, which is a German word meaning bar, or a combination of a bar and restaurant.

With the Millennials, the newest generation of adults in the 21st Century, being notorious non-joiners, the Montana Club was losing revenue as their older clientele dwindled away. The Club faced extinction after 132 years. If the Original Montana Club were to continue, a new concept had to be introduced.

In 2017, the Board of Governors decided that the Original Montana Club should become a for-profit cooperative association. A cooperative is a business entity owned and democratically controlled by the people who desire and use its products, supplies, or services. It is organized, incorporated, and capitalized under applicable state laws.

The hallmarks of any cooperative are open membership and democratic member control. Members contribute equitably to their own independent cooperative, work for the sustainable development of the community, and serve their members by working with other cooperatives.

Governance of a cooperative is the responsibility of a board of directors elected by and accountable to the member owners. A professional manager is normally hired to oversee co-op operations. The base capital initially comes from the member owners.

Net proceeds are allocated to members according to the extent they use the cooperative’s services during the year, not the equity held.

If a cooperative fails, the liability of each member is limited to the amount personally invested. From looking inward for over 100 years, the remaining members of the Original Montana Club began looking outward by using this cooperative model.

The Club began marketing the cooperative concept and promoting stock subscriptions in August and September of 2017 when the Club facilities were opened to the public.

There are two kinds of stocks. One share of common stock is priced at $50 and gives an individual member owner one voting right in the cooperative. Nonprofit organizations may also subscribe to a share of common stock for $100, and businesses may subscribe for $250. These members still have only one vote.

The preferred, non-voting stock is priced at $250 per share and provides for a dividend should the Club make a profit in any given year.

To date, the Club has recruited 370 subscribers of common and preferred shares, and that number is still growing. Organizers expect to convene the initial meeting of subscribers sometime in April 2018 when all subscribers entitled to vote will pass their co-op bylaws and elect the co-op’s first board of directors.

Since last fall when the co-op campaign was launched, the number of scheduled activities has increased; the dining room has had more people for dinner; and an increasing number are coming or bringing clients to the Montana Club for lunch. The cooperative model appears to be injecting new life into an old establishment.

“The members love it,” said Tara Slack, Assistant General Manager, “because they say it’s like earlier years with all the activity and more people coming into the Club.”

It is not hard to imagine two individuals settling down for a visit in one of the sitting rooms of the Montana Club. Most likely, though, any story told by one of them wouldn’t have taken place on the European Continent but instead in the American West.

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