The Havre Laundry and Dry Cleaning Co.
The Story of the Hi-Line’s Oldest Business
By 1895, the Great Northern Railroad was in full operation with big trains being pulled through Havre. Large crews were required in the Havre area to consistently rebuild and maintain the tracks. This brought about other business and opportunities for the community, one of which was a full service laundry and bath house. Thus, Havre Laundry was born.
The early days of the Havre Steam Laundry and Baths, as it was first known, had a diverse customer base. The laundry and horse-drawn delivery service was doing a brisk business of it’s own. Additionally, since it was the only location in Havre with large quantities of hot water, the company had a great basis for baths, with a steady clientele of working girls from the local “cribs”, railroad crews, and cowboy roughnecks. In 1904, the Havre Laundry was purchased by six partners who incorporated the company and changed the name to Havre Steam Laundry, Inc., at a total purchase price of $7,500. In 1923, dry cleaning was added and a separate building was constructed to house the new operation. In 1931, the original corporation was dissolved, with one of the six original partners remaining as sole proprietor. The name then changed to the Havre Laundry and Cleaners.
Ralph A. Sleeter moved to Havre in 1934 and began his tenure at the company. Twelve years later, he purchased the operation and acted as sole proprietor until 1952 when he incorporated the business under the name The Havre Laundry and Dry Cleaning Co., Inc. In 1951, a Sanitone franchise was added to the dry cleaning operation to tie the company to a national organization. Prior to 1953, the Havre Laundry was providing services to its customers only as a laundry and dry cleaning outlet to clean, press, package and deliver their customer’s goods. In that same year, Ralph Sleeter and James Sleeter, Ralph’s oldest child, began a linen supply venture, which added a service in which the customers no longer had to purchase their own textile items. Now, the textile items that they needed for their business, could be supplied and serviced without the need for the customer to purchase and replace worn or unused goods. The new name for the linen supply side of the operation was called Northern Montana Linen Supply. Late in 2013, the name Northern Montana Textile Services was adopted with a new company logo and image to better reflect all the products, services, and market area that the company now provides. Late in 2013, the name Northern Montana Textile Services was adopted with a new company logo and image to better reflect all the products, services, and market area that the company now provides. Both Havre Laundry & Dry Cleaning Co, Inc., and Northern Montana Textile Services are names in use today.
Ralph Sleeter retired in 1964 and James Sleeter was then elected as President and General Manager. Neal Brenna, son-in-law of Ralph Sleeter, began his career in the business in 1957 while working towards his degree in industrial engineering from Montana State University. Mr. Brenna was elected President and General Manager in 1976. In 1982, Ron Brenna, youngest child of Neal, began working during his college days. In 1995, Ron was elected President and General Manager of the company.
The success and longevity of the company has had many twists along the way. In the early days, the laundry services were diverse and widespread. Outlying areas surrounding Havre had laundry services via the Great Northern Railroad and locals enjoyed delivery service directly from horse drawn carriages. Changes over the century have brought expanded market areas and additional services, but the key to success has been to maintain the core basis of the original company. “We’re a laundry, period” says Mr. Brenna. “That is what we do. We have expanded the concept of what a laundry can do for our customers, but the basics of the business remain the same, even after over 100 years. That is perhaps the biggest single reason we have survived.”
However, the company’s long survival has not been without some very trying times.. One of the largest enemies of the company has been fires. Three major fires, first in 1926, again in 1934, and last in 1974 – have forced the company to adapt and improvise to maintain services to its loyal customers. Technological advances in the industry, although not as ground sweeping and extreme as in other industries, and modernization has helped the company keep pace with the increased production demands that expansion has produced. Currently, the company employs 30 full time people in all of its operations and locations. The company currently has a market and service area of mover 30,000 square miles, a territory unequaled in size by any other independent laundry in the Northwest.
The Havre Laundry and Dry Cleaning Co., Inc. Is operating in the same location and with a few additions and alterations, in the original 1904 building. The company has provided Havre and the Hi-Line with services for their textile care and supply needs, and has credited their longevity to focusing on one business industry and striving to perfect their services. The future of the company looks as solid now as it has at any time in its long and storied existence, and the management and staff of the Havre Laundry want to thank the people of Havre and the Hi-Line for allowing them to be a part of their community for the past century. Over one hundred years of customer loyalty is what keeps business in small rural economies alive and thriving. Havre Laundry has survived two world wars, the great depression, three building fires, several extreme droughts, and tough economic hardships because of the people of Northern Montana. And for that, the Havre Laundry and Dry Cleaning Company is grateful to be in Havre, Montana!