A Chambers-Fisher Company Christmas
Rachel Phillips | Saturday Dec. 1st, 2018
In November and December of 1955, the local newspapers were filled with large advertisements from Chambers-Fisher Company. Sometimes comprising an entire page, these ads featured illustrations of popular Christmas gifts and catchy phrases like: “Yule-Minded Aprons,” “Santa…She’ll Love These,” and “Round-up of Gifts for Girls and Boys.”
A longtime owner of Chambers-Fisher, Minnie Preston, saved her store advertisements from the newspaper and pasted them in large scrapbooks which are now part of the Gallatin History Museum’s archive collection. One ad, headlined with “Here’s Where Santa Stars,” lists popular 1955 Christmas items and their prices. “Fine Luggage,” (individual cases and sets) ranged from $14.00 to $50.00. Depending on one’s budget, shoppers could purchase perfume or cologne for $1.00 or $27.50. Jewel-colored cardigan sweaters and most jewelry pieces cost less than $20.00. For holiday shopping convenience, the ad also noted the store’s gift-wrapping service, as well as extended evening hours (until 9:00 p.m.) on four dates in December—the 3rd, 10th, 17th, and 21st.
For many of us today, these ads bring a bit of holiday nostalgia with their illustrations of Santa Claus and lists of popular gift items from decades past. Most folks who grew up in Bozeman have fond memories of Chambers-Fisher department store, which was located next to the Ellen Theater on West Main Street. Chambers-Fisher began as the Golden Rule store in the early 1890s, and in 1906 a large new building was constructed next to the Ellen just west of Tracy Avenue. The Golden Rule was established by a Missourian named Andy Murphy, who sold it to the Fisher family a few years later. James R. Chambers purchased a portion of the company in 1910, at which time the name changed to Chambers-Fisher. In the early 1940s, Frank and Minnie Preston acquired a large portion of the company’s holdings, and it was run by the Preston family until the mid-1980s.
By the 1910s, Chambers-Fisher department store had developed a reputation across Montana for its excellent service and large selection of housewares, toys, shoes, and the latest clothing styles. An escalator was added after World War II, a modern marvel enjoyed by scores of children for decades. The escalator created additional easily-accessible display space on the second floor of the building. The main office occupied a spot on the balcony, overlooking the entire store.
In addition to the escalator, Chambers-Fisher utilized another piece of unique technology that impressed patrons. According to a paper titled “Reminiscences of the Chambers-Fisher Company,” by Helen E. Fechter:
“A series of wire baskets on wire pulleys connected each department to the office. The clerks made out sales tickets and those tickets together with payment were put in a small metal box and along with the merchandise, were put in a basket. A handle was pulled and the basket sailed overhead to the office where the sale was rung up on the cash register; charge tickets and cash tickets were put on separate spindles, the merchandise wrapped in brown paper, tied with white string, put back in the basket along with any change and returned to the department.”
In later years, the wire baskets were replaced by a tube system, similar to what banks use today in drive-through windows. Clerks made out receipts for purchases and sent off the ticket and payment to the office in a tube. Change was sent back to the clerk through the same tube.
At Christmastime, Chambers-Fisher was decorated to the brim with trees, fresh boughs, and holiday ornaments. The Forsythe family in Bridger Canyon supplied the store with winter greenery for many years. Photographs from the 1950s and 1960s show boughs, ornaments, and wreaths hanging from nearly every vertical surface in the store, upstairs and down. This festive holiday atmosphere and the scent of fresh pine boughs meant that Christmastime had finally arrived in Bozeman.
The massive storefront, not to be outdone by the intricate Christmas decorations inside, was graced with a large panel above the awning. The scene ran nearly the entire length of the building and showed a silhouette of Santa’s sleigh pulled by reindeer. Underneath the reindeer were printed the words: “Whoa! This is the place,” which marked Chambers-Fisher department store as the ultimate Bozeman destination for Christmas gifts.
In November, 1954, Frank Preston was tragically killed in a car accident near Three Forks. His wife Minnie continued to operate Chambers-Fisher for the next thirty years, serving as company president from 1955 to 1985. Next to her store and its employees, Minnie loved animals. In the 1960s, she remodeled Chambers-Fisher’s storefront, taking the opportunity to add a dog drinking fountain near the front door. A portion of her Christmas card collection resides at the Gallatin History Museum, and many of the holiday greeting cards feature dogs.
Later in her life, Minnie Preston advocated support for local downtown businesses while witnessing dramatic city growth that brought in national retail chains. After her death at age 105 in 1998, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle interviewed one of her friends, who remembered Minnie’s first visit to Kmart. According to her comrade, Minnie emerged impressed, commenting “Well, no wonder people come here.” Her Kmart awe aside, Minnie sparked a push to buy local that continues today. She would wholeheartedly approve of “Small Business Saturday,” a current idea that advocates supporting local businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Chambers-Fisher department store embodied the holiday spirit—all year long. Minnie Preston and her staff provided a first-class shopping experience that gave their customers something to remember, years into the future. In Bozeman, it wasn’t Christmas until Chambers-Fisher put up Santa’s sleigh and started advertising those sweaters, which, of course, were “tops on her list.”
“A lady would want to live her life in sweaters—if all were as beautiful and flattering as these. They’re tops on her fashion-list—tops on her Christmas “wish list” so come in soon and make her Christmas wishes come true.”