100 Years — Pierce Family Helps Grow Billings & Montana
By Evelyn Pyburn
George Russell Pierce came to Montana in about 1910. He became a peddler, driving around the Butte area in a Model-T, selling Foley’s Honey & Tar Compound, an all- purpose medicine – a very common type of product of that era before medicines had to substantiate their claims. Foley’s Honey & Tar was produced in Chicago from 1895 to the mid-1960’s as a cough medicine, cure for the flu and “all Throat and Lung troubles.” It was comprised of 7% alcohol, pine tar and honey, terpin hydrate, sodium benzyl succinate and gum arabic.
Such was the early beginning of what became a leading entrepreneurial family in Billings, who this year is celebrating their 100th anniversary. The name Pierce is a very familiar one in Billings and it has been since George R. Piece began his own used car business in 1924. Today Pierce -owned companies dominate the RV and flooring businesses in Billings, with locations for both enterprises in several other Montana cities.
Today, Pierce companies are overseen by George’s great grandson and great, great grandson, Ron Pierce and Russell Pierce. Ron is sole owner of the company, and manages Pierce Flooring; while his son, Russell manages Pierce RV.
During the passing generations many changes have occurred since the days of Foley’s Honey & Tar Compound. Pierce RV Supercenter has two locations, Billings and Great Falls. Pierce Flooring – also under the names of the Carpet Barn and Carpet Mill Outlet – has numerous locations in Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls and Butte.
The Pierce family is quite reverent about the efforts of previous generations of their family. The stories they have to tell are not only lessons in business but often amusing, reflecting bygone eras.
While the reason that George came to Montana has been lost to history, mining may have been the lure, since it was the era of gold rushes and George’s father, James Harrison Pierce, had participated in the California Gold Rush, in which he did quite well. James Harrison Pierce returned home to Georgia, only to join a bunch of other men from Georgia, leaving behind their homes and wives, to search for gold in Colorado, which was the launching of the Colorado Gold Rush. Leading that group was James Harrison Pierce’s cousin, Green Russell, who is considered the founder of Denver.
James Harrison Pierce and a few cohorts, including Dr. R. J. Russell, first came to Montana by riverboat, arriving in Ft. Benton. Gold mining was at a feverish pitch in southwestern Montana – Bannack, Virginia City, Ruby Valley and Last Chance Gulch. James and his friends freighted supplies to the gold miners. In doing so they discovered there were some camels in the area and soon learned that camels could serve as well as oxen, and even better because they were faster. One day, in which five camels were standing in a field with some oxen, a “tenderfoot” saw them and figured the camels were wild game and shot one – much to the angst of the freight haulers.
They told the “tinderfoot” that they would let him off lightly if he were able to dig a hole and bury the camel in one day – if he failed in that endeavor they threatened to bury him with the camel. The story is, the camel was buried somewhere in the vicinity of where the Capitol building was eventually built in Helena.
George was born in Colorado in 1894.
Before leaving Butte, George met and married Margaret Lee Morrison, who became his life-long partner and mother to their four children. Billings must have appeared as more promising than Butte, because in 1913 George moved his very young family to Billings and gained a job as a car salesman for various entities such as Huppmobile, Goan Motor Company and Rich Motor Company.
In 1924, George began his own business selling used cars – or as he preferred to call them “experienced cars.” George’s three sons, John, George and Frank joined the business after returning from serving in the army during World War II.
George was quite creative in his promotional efforts. He fabricated the existence of a dog named Gumshoe at his business and urged prospective customers to come in and buy a car so he could buy Gumshoe a bone.
George started his used car business by renting part of a building at 30th Street North and Montana Avenue and it grew to such an extent that he soon needed more space, and he purchased a lot at 5th Street West and St. Johns Avenue.
George is remembered as being a master organizer and salesman. He was also a knowledgeable mechanic and part of his business included rebuilding wrecked automobiles.
He built a “bus” to provide transportation between Billings and Miles City, relates Ron Pierce. Through his mechanical genius he put two cars together with an extended axle, and for some time it served as a public means of transportation between the two cities.
In 1939, George became a dealer for Willy’s Jeeps. He also started selling Linoleum in half the building, which along with carpeting and other floor coverings, which eventually became a separate successful business.
George touted the Jeep as costing less than two cents a mile to operate and claimed they got 30 miles to a gallon of gas.
George held the dealership for the Jeep manufacturer, which was Kaiser Industry in Toledo, Ohio, until the 1960s, when they came out with a model that George didn’t like, so he dropped his dealership.
With the extra space they had at 5th and St. Johns, they added some travel trailers and mobile home displays on the lot. Amazingly this part of the business took off, out stripping used car sales, and it quickly grew into one of the largest RV, modular and mobile home businesses in the region, including leasing and parts and service business. It expanded to another location, a few blocks up the road, at Moore Lane and Laurel Road.
George R. Pierce died in 1958, and his sons took over the business interests.
Ten years later, John and George L. Pierce bought out the interests of Frank Pierce. John Pierce died in 1971 and George L. Pierce purchased his share of the business, making him the sole owner of the Pierce businesses.
During this time Pierce was growing adding a flooring store in Bozeman and opening the “Carpet Barn”, a discount store, on Grand Avenue in Billings. In 1977 they added a flooring store in Missoula, and in 1984 they opened a store in Great Falls.
George L. Pierce died in 1993, and his sons, Ron and Bill took the leadership helm and became partners, until Bill’s death in 1998. Ron purchased Bill’s interest from his family and has continued as the owner of the businesses until today.
He and his wife, Linda, have two sons, Jake and Russell. Retaining its role as a family business, both sons have worked in various aspects of the business from a young age, and Ron’s cousin, John, for many years managed the RV Flooring side of the business.
In total the Pierce businesses employ about 225 people statewide.
The businesses have continued to grow with the addition of both flooring stores and RV centers in many cities in the state.
In Billings, Pierce Flooring in 1998 opened the Pierce Home Center at 2950 King Avenue West which incorporated Rimrock Lighting, Appliance and Cabinet Center and Pierce Flooring.
In 2001, Pierce opened a modular and manufactured housing location in Great Falls.
In 2006, Pierce started a second location for RV’s in Kalispell
The RV business made a huge leap in Billings in 2001 at 3800 Pierce Parkway near Zoo Drive interchange with the building and opening of a brand new supercenter for Pierce Homes and RVs. At the same time they built a Pierce RV supercenter in Great Falls.
They started a subdivision in Williston, ND in 2012, for high-end modular homes.
And, in 2012 Pierce opened a homes and leasing business in Glendive.
Ron Pierce is optimistic about the future despite the headwinds for all businesses over the past few years. He notes that while there is more competition and the costs of doing business are higher consumers are more interested than ever in recreational vehicles, so much so that manufacturers cannot keep up – and the industry is projecting a slight increase in 2024.
And as long as other businesses keep building and people keep building homes the flooring business will remain strong.
Asked what he views as the key to success in business, Russell Pierce readily responded, “Doing what’s right for the customer and employees.” It is a challenge that consumes most of your focus every day, but it’s essential to gaining customer loyalty and in retaining the best employees.
He noted that product warranties are only as good as the business that offers it – being a local, family-owned enterprise, “You can come back to us,” he said.