Mai Wah Society

The Wah Chong Tai Mercantile


Introduction

The Wah Chong Tai was Butte's preeminent Chinese general store. The company was established about 1894, and moved into the present building when it was built in 1899. The photo at left shows the interior in 1905.

Charlie Bovey, a Montana legislator, saved buildings and artifacts from all over Montana in his efforts to restore and preserve Virginia City and Nevada City, Montana. Most of Nevada City consists of buildings brought in from around the state. In the mid-1940s, after the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile had closed, Bovey purchased the contents (cabinets and all their contents) and moved them to Nevada City. In 1997, the State of Montana purchased morwe than 250 buildings and their contents from the Bovey heirs, creating the Montana Heritage Commission to manage them.

In the late 2000s, the Montana Heritage Commission began an effort to maintain Virginia City and Nevada City "as they were," and the Mai Wah Society and the Heritage Commission began negotiations to return the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile materials to their place of origin in Butte. An agreement for a loan was reached in 2010, and in 2011-12 the cases and more than 2,500 artifacts returned.

The effort to photograph, catalog, pack, and move the artifacts and cases was led by Mai Wah volunteers, and supported by a generous grant to the Mai Wah from the Confucius Institute of the University of Montana at Missoula. Additional funding for artifact preparation came from Dori Skrukrud. Mai Wah Board Member Janet Sperry funded the Merle and Edith Hoyt Curatorial Chair, enabling the Mai Wah to hire a professional curator, Janna Norby, to further catalog, interpret, and display the artifacts.

The Exhibit

Curator Janna Norby and Butte High School student Si Wen Liu, have translated and labeled many of the artifacts in the collection, including cigar boxes still holding the pangolin scales and herbs that they contained in the 1940s. With 2,500 artifacts, the complete interpretation of them and their role in Butte's Chinatown is a long-term project, but today you see the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile much as it was in the 1910s and 1920s. The cabinets were here by 1905, and likely came to the building when it was erected in 1899. Old newspapers on the sides of some cabinets date to 1897 and mark the opening of Hennessey's Department Store in Butte.

With more than 2,500 original artifacts, the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile is one of the most complete period Chinese stores from the early 20th Century in the United States, and the only one that is in its original setting. Research opportunities abound. For visitors, seeing first-hand the vast range of goods that could be purchased in a Chinese store in remote Butte, Montana, will give you a sense of both the importance of Butte and its incredible, multi-ethnic cosmopolitan nature.

Our blog also features artifacts from the Mercantile exhibit.


Volunteers celebrate after two days of packing artifacts.