The Ravalli County Museum is opening their newest exhibit “Montana Café” on Saturday, July 20.
The community is invited to share remembrances of the Chinese-American restaurant that was at 134 W. Main Street in Hamilton. Currently, the women’s department of Ford’s now operates there.
The Ravalli County Museum has been working on the history and sweet family story with Lee family members for years.
Tamar Stanley, museum director, said the event on Saturday will highlight a community icon and valley-wide tradition.
“Everyone who lived here during the era of the Montana Café has nothing but the most charming and engaging stories about the center of the social world and one of the few places to dine out at the time,” Stanley said. “The local eatery may be gone, but the stories still exist in the minds and hearts of all those who remember the iconic restaurant, its big neon sign, and the family who owned it.”
The café was a gathering point for many families who ate there weekly, if not more often.
“The most endearing tales have to do with May and Harry Hom and the joy of visiting with the children who were coming in with their folks, their love of life in general, and the value of hard work,” Stanley said. “And perhaps most notably, their constancy and devotion to their customers who soon belonged there, like they were family.”
On Saturday, the event begins around 1:30 p.m. under the bell tower, weather permitting. After a brief introduction the Hom family will be introduced. Community members and Hom family members will share an experience or memory they had at the Montana Café.
Inside the museum the Montana Café neon sign will shine and the exhibit will be open to tell the story of lives, connections and history of a family embraced by the community.
The the long history of the café is full of stories about lives intertwined and encouraged.
Stanley said, “There will also be a loop of the oral history that May gave us several years ago, when she was 95 I believe, where she talks about high points in her life, work and family.”
Known history of the restaurant begins in the early 1900 as patrons were served by Sherman Lee. In 1920, he sold the café to his relatives, Lee Suey and Lee Poy who sponsored Harry (Lee) Hom and Jimmy (Lee) Hom from China who became the owners.
Harry and his wife May joined the Lee brothers as co-owners in 1943, the neon sign (possibly the only neon sign in Hamilton) was in place by 1943.
When Lee Suey and Lee Poy retired in 1952, Harry and May partnered with Jimmy (Lee) Hom and his wife Yu Kim as the café’s co-owners. The Lee and Hom families retired in 1983.
Stanley said the museum has compiled a history and interpretation. She said community members remember, “Jimmy and Yu Kim cooking and running the kitchen, May waiting tables in her white uniform and shoes, and Harry at the cash register, serving water and coffee, keeping the books, ordering supplies – meat from Tolman’s, vegetables at Safeway – everything Jimmy needed in the kitchen.”
Other remeberances include, “hearty breakfasts, urns of coffee, Harry’s homemade “25-cent bargain” cinnamon rolls, chinese chicken and rice, thick hamburgers, real mashed potatoes, chicken-fried steak, and what May called “the best custard pie in the West,” all served efficiently and, frequently, with a bite of humor.”
“The Museum is privileged to have been the recipient of the gift of the sign from the Hom family and we have been years in making this event come to fulfillment,” Stanley said. “The sign is lit, the stories are ready to be told, and the Montana Café lives on at the Ravalli County Museum.”
Come to the event, share your memories and relive a tasty part of Hamilton history at 1:30 p.m. on July 20 at the Ravalli County Museum, 205 Bedford St.