By Tim Eberly
CHINOOK Ernest Larson had $9 in his pocket when he first left Minnesota in 1949.
It wasn't an ideal situation, but neither was his home life.
Growing up in Oklee, Minn., Larson lost his father to a massive stroke when he was 7. Less than two years later, Larson's mother also had a stroke, paralyzing her left side and sapping her ability to communicate.
With an invalid mother, Larson and his 10 siblings one of whom was physically disabled and blind were forced to raise themselves on the family's grain farm and ranch.
"We took care of her on the farm for many, many years," Larson said of his mother. "We had a hell of a life."
So Larson, the fourth-youngest child, and his best friend dropped out of high school before their senior year, hopped in his 1929 Model A Ford and set out to find work on the West Coast. However, $9 stretched only as far as Chinook.
"That's why we had to stop in this area," Larson, 69, said this week. "We hadn't eaten for two days."
Working on a farm between Box Elder and Big Sandy, the teenagers lived out of Larson's car for several months.
Larson didn't settle down in Chinook until the following year, after he returned to Minnesota to graduate high school the first male in his family to earn that honor.
Two days after graduating, he was drafted to fight in the Korean War. But after he failed his physical doctors found bleeding ulcers in his stomach Larson returned by himself to Chinook, where he eventually became a successful business owner. At their peak, Larson and his wife, Artista, owned two stores and supervised 10 employees.
On June 1, his life as a Chinook businessman will come to a end, as he shuts the doors of Larson Furniture for good.
"I want to retire and my wife does too," Larson said. "And we would like a few days before the end is near."
Though Larson appears in good health he still delivers and assembles his furniture he is calling his final sale, which starts Thursday, the "Rest In Peace" sale.
The store has been open for 31 years. Two weeks ago, Larson sold the building to a local man who owns most of the property on that block in the business district.
"We did everything," he said. "You name it, we did it. It was a big business."
In the 1970s, more than 150 businesses existed in Chinook, Larson said, but now there are only a handful.
He credits his store's longevity to "hard work and good management," but his willingness to barter didn't hurt.
"He doesn't have a set price for anything," Artista, 69, said.
Not only is Larson willing to haggle, but he has traded goods for beef, wheat, livestock and clothing.
In the early 1970s, he purchased a 1968 Cadillac El Dorado from a cancer-stricken man who needed money for treatment.
"He loves people," Artista said. "He deals with everybody."
There is one thing, however, that he doesn't love: horses.
"Here's what he always says," Artista said. " We'll take anything on trade except horses.' "
Why not horses? "Because they're a detriment," Larson said. "You can't make any money with horses."
When Kmart opened in Havre in the early 1980s, he said, the concept of one-stop shopping took a chunk of his profits.
"Big business has made it tough," he said.
Within the last five years, he would have jumped at the opportunity to get out of business if the price were right.
"We're not going to get out of it wealthy, but we're not going to be poor," he said.
Ernest and Artista met in 1952, while he worked on a farm and she as a teller in a bank. One year later, they were married. On Sept. 20, they will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary. The couple has four grown children together. All their children live in other states except the youngest, 33-year-old Connie Duczek, who resides in Missoula.
Since their two businesses opened in 1971 that year, Larson also purchased Gamble's Hardware Store, which remained open until 1985 Artista has done their finances and cleaned, as well as working the sales floor. He orders and delivers the furniture, and sometimes, assembles it.
"We've just worked together on everything," Artista said, referring to the business, as well as their marriage.
The Larsons, who have managed Larson Furniture without employees for about six years, are busy preparing for their final stretch. Two trucks filled with merchandise are still en route to the store. He ordered the furniture before he decided to sell.
"So we'll just unload it and peddle it," Larson said. "Everything has to go."