Emma and Charles Harnois circa 1890 (above) and circa 1930 (below)
“Uncle Charlie” Harnois was a well-known and beloved figure in and around Missoula as the 19th century turned into the 20th. At that time, he’d already established a long and colorful history in Montana.
In 1875, Missouri resident Charles Albert Harnois (b. October 31, 1856) joined the great westward migration by getting a job as cabin boy on the Josephine, a steamboat that traveled the Missouri River from Yankton, South Dakota to Fort Benton, Montana (the main pre-railroad route from the east to the Montana gold fields). During this period he married wife Emma and the 1880 census show the couple and their two boys claiming residence in North Dakota.
Charlie moved the family to Montana shortly after the 1880 census was taken, first to the gold camp Maiden where he ran a very successful restaurant, and later to Helena, where a third son was added to the family. When the Northern Pacific railroad arrived in 1883, he got a job as an on-board news agent. He moved the family to Missoula in 1888 when the Bitterroot Branch of the line was nearing completion.
A small slight man, who had to buy his clothing in the boy’s department of the Missoula Mercantile, Charlie started a local business hawking newspapers and posting advertising bills. Seen whipping around town on a horse-drawn, paper-laden logging sled, Uncle Charlie was instantly recognizable on the streets of Missoula. He was so popular and successful, he soon expanded his advertising endeavors to Helena, Butte and Anaconda.
The Harnois home (circa 1930)
In 1889 the Harnois family bought land in the newly platted Knowles subdivision and, by 1890, they’d built one of the first houses located on the south side of the Missoula River. (Owing to Charlie’s later success in the theater business, the small one and a half story folk Victorian with a stable in back was substantially enlarged around 1907 by adding an east wing, octagonal tower and front veranda. The home still stands at 519 South 3rd Street West.)
Throughout the 1890s, Charlie traveled the western part of the state doing his advertising gig, which seems to have eventually landed him jobs in the theater business in Helena and Butte. Indeed, the family must have moved to Butte for a time, for the census of 1900 show them living there.
Perhaps tired of his peripatetic lifestyle, Charlie finally settled his family down in Missoula just after the turn of the century, taking over management of the Bennett theater. Later he invested in and managed the Union theater. Flat broke after the latter burned, local friends and investors in 1909 built him his own grand new playhouse, the Harnois Theater, named for their beloved Uncle Charlie. All three sons also worked at the Harnois in various capacities.
Charlie ran the Harnois until 1914 when, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall for light opera and vaudeville acts as feature length movies made their debut, he sold the theater and moved his whole family to the warm climes of Santa Ana, California. For many years, he owned and operated a book and curio store there, but remained ever nostalgic for Missoula and his days on the Montana frontier. Uncle Charlie passed away in 1941.
Missoulian June 5, 1941