Who painted 80-year old mural in Chinook remains a mystery
August 5, 2020
When I started with the "Journal" seven years ago, the newspaper was located in the building where Treasure State Title now operates in Chinook. Next door, south, in a one story building also facing Indiana Street, was a golf simulator in the front portion and a private wood shop and a few storage units in the rear. That back door still has a painted sign that reads "Kuhr's Entrance." I knew the locale only as the Kuhr's building.
During my research on the Chinook Opera House ("Journal" story, 7-15-2020) I learned of the existence of a hand painted mural on the inside south wall of the old Kuhr store. And that the painted "Boyle" sign on the outside south wall of the opera house building also related to Kuhr Clothing. Several local seniors and former Kuhr employees shared their recollections of the western art in the store. Here's some history about Kuhr Clothing and the mural in the old store.
A short history of Kuhr Clothing
An entry in the Chinook centennial book (1989) describes Kuhr Clothing as "Chinook's oldest operating family business." Frank Boyle came from his native Wisconsin to work for his uncle A. S. Lohman, one of Chinook's earliest merchants. Boyle started his retail business in 1900, likely a couple of doors south in the old Lohman Block, dealing in hardware as well as clothing. In 1903 he moved the clothing part of his business into the south half of the building where the Chinook Opera House was just completed.
At the new location Boyle's emphasis was only on clothing. In 1905 he constructed the one story building at 223 Indiana. A 1910 photo shows a sign for Boyle's store across the front of the one story building as well as the lower south half of the opera house. Eventually what became Kuhr Clothing occupied only the one story building. Frank Boyle remained active in the business until 1944.
Ed J. Kuhr (nicknamed "Peg") married Boyle's daughter, Frances, joined the business and the business name changed to Kuhr Clothing. Ed was active in the business from 1931-1988 (his death). Many locals told about Ed Kuhr acting as a banker for the local sheepherders. They explained the sheepherders would come to the store with cash, like an entire season's pay, and buy clothing for the next year. They would give the remaining cash to Ed to dole out to them as needed, but "never all at one time." I heard numerous versions of that story.
Ken Kuhr, Ed's son, joined the business in 1960, working alongside his father. Ken Kuhr was quoted that his goal was to keep the business going and in the family "for 100 years." Health issues forced him to sell the store in 1989, just shy of his goal. Ken's widow, Lee, was the librarian in Chinook for a time. She survives and lives in Billings.
Kuhr's Clothing helped Chinook move from a frontier town to a regional retail center. All three generations promoted the growth of the town and its businesses. While Ken Kuhr was president of the Chinook Chamber of Commerce the predecessor to the Farmer-Rancher Night (1970-1996) was organized. The event showed appreciation to the agricultural interests so important to the area's economy. A "Chinook Opinion" story following the first of these events noted, "800 farmers and stockmen from all corners of Blaine County, plus 68 chamber members and their spouses, attended." From Frank Boyle's "car/float" in the 1914 July 4th parade to more recent community events, the clothing store supported the community.
The mural and other western art
Lee Kuhr told, "In the 1940's a man (some think it might have been a local sheepherder) told Ed J. Kuhr that he needed to buy clothing but had no money." He was artistically inclined and offered to do art for the clothing. Ed had him paint the muralThe images are painted dark brown on a beige background. Keith Hanson, who once owned the building, said, "The mural started just above the tops of the shelving in the store and went to the ceiling." He believes the completed mural was about 40 feet long. Part of the mural was painted over when some prior remodeling was done. Of the mural, Anna added, "Ed was always very pleased with how the mural turned out."
Also painted on the mural is a set of branding irons. One former employee said, "Local ranchers would come in, check out the branding irons, then buy a pair of Levi 501's." The front entrance was originally offset at the street with a kind of 'portico' just before the entrance. That inside wall has two actual branding irons mounted there. I'm no expert on brands but one looks like a "K" and might be a family brand.
Several seniors recalled a portrait above the cash register. Anna said it was a portrait of Chief Joseph, painted by local artist Clarence Cuts The Rope. Anna explained, "My mother-in-law had a book with a picture of Chief Joseph in it. The artist used the photo to do the painting." The painting was sold when the store closed.
What's next for the former Kuhr's building?
Daniel and Kadie Dahl, owners of the Wilderness Funeral Home (formerly Edwards Funeral Home), bought the building last spring. They plan to remodel the front part of the building for a women's clothing store. The remodel should begin shortly with plans to open in September. The old store will be re-purposed selling clothing still serving the community into a second century.