After 98 years of providing Butte residents with furniture, one of the city’s oldest family-owned businesses is coming to the last chapter of its story – or is at least coming to the first page of its sequel.
Mike and Pam Rudolph -- who have been with Rudolph's Furniture for over 39 years -- said Tuesday they plan to retire and are putting the business and its building at 65 E. Park St. up for sale.
For weeks, signs have been posted on the building’s windows, advertising a retirement sale. Mike Rudolph said he doesn’t have an exact closing date, but that the store will shut its doors once the inventory is gone.
“We’ve been working six days, seven days a week going on 42 years,” said Mike Rudolph, noting that living life at a slower pace will certainly be a transition. However, he said he’s sure to find an outlet for the energy that’s kept the family business going all these years. “I like being busy,” Rudolph said.
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For many in Butte, Rudolph’s is more than just a store.
It’s a business that spans three generations and is often cited as the oldest furniture store in Montana. It survived the Depression, a world war and the mine closures of the 1980s and has seen some of Butte’s largest employers, Montana Power Co. and Touch America, ride high and then sink low into oblivion.
Some might say what’s kept the store afloat was a framework laid out by the store’s founder, Rudolph’s grandfather, a Prussian immigrant named Kalman Rudolph. He started the business in 1919 after coming to United States to escape unrest in his home country.
Joel Broudy, who owns Wein's Men's Store, 66 W. Park St., another longtime Butte business, described Kalman as a direct, down-to-earth business person.
“He was sort of a matter-of-fact-guy,” said Broudy.
When Kalman started the business, it was The Butte Furniture Exchange at 105 E. Park St., just down the street from the business’s current location.
There, Rudolph’s father Lew and his uncle Newt began working at the store with their father Kalman from a young age. Newt gave a lifetime to the business, working at the Park Street store from 1948 until he died in 1998 at age 72.
Many articles were written about Rudolph’s over the years, and through all of the sentences wrought by reporters who have since come and gone, one theme seemed to get repeated: Lew Rudolph was someone who knew how to roll up his sleeves.
According to a 2005 Montana Standard article, Lew was just 14 years old when he drove for the first time the business’ truck from Butte to Seattle to pick up a load of furniture. It was a time when his father had fallen ill and Lew had to take responsibility for the family business.
“It was the way you were brought up, when something had to be done, you did it,” Lew said in 2005.
The sentiment is something he carried with him during economic highs and lows.
“In the good times you prosper and in the bad times you have to pull together and survive,” he said
Lew retired in 2009, but was a daily visitor at the store. He died in 2015. In addition to being a longtime business owner, he was also a World War II veteran, having served as a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber.
Like their father, Rudolph and his brother Larry began working at the store as young men. Rudolph left the store to attend college but he returned when Larry passed away in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he began managing the store with his father and his uncle.
Like many family-owned businesses these days, Rudolph’s will not move on to the next generation.
“With a lot of industries, that’s going to be an issue,” said Rudolph, noting a national trend in which an increasing number of young people are leaving small towns in search for work and experiences.
George Everett of Mainstreet Uptown Butte, meanwhile, says he’s not worried.
He believes there’s a new generation of “young entrepreneurs who are ready and willing to start businesses Uptown.”
He noted that when Sharp Expressions closed on Park Street in 2003, residents lamented the closure of what was then an Uptown mainstay and reporters asked questions about the vitality of Uptown.
Years later, Everett said, the location is occupied by the Taco del Sol restaurant and new owners have breathed new life into the building.
As for Rudolph’s, Everett had nothing but praise for the multi-generational business, noting that the wisdom and experience of its owners will be missed.
“It’s going to be sad to see them go,” said Everett.
“They were all really good businessmen,” he said of the Rudolph clan. “I don’t know if you’re born with it or if it’s intuitive.”
Broudy’s own store has been in Butte since 1906 and in his family’s ownership since 1920.
He said he’s known all three Rudolph owners and that in Lew and Kalman’s time, you could run a business on one simple principle: “you took care of the customer, and the customer took care of you,” he said.
Pam Rudolph has been working at the store with her husband for 39 years.
She said starting a new chapter in her life is bittersweet and that she’ll miss working with employees and her customers.
“I have such mixed emotions,” said Pam. “It’s been our life and our identity and our family’s identity almost for 100 years.”