John Fryer died on December 16 and Livingston lost a pillar, a piece of its foundation, a link to its history. He was 88 and had recently broken a hip.
John was born in Livingston on April 6, 1935 and lived most of his life in the same house on South Third Street. He graduated from Park High School, attended the University of Montana and Montana State University, and monitored the world from his store on Callender Street in Livingston.
Sax & Fryer, in business since 1882, became a beloved institution. So did John. He knew the town’s history, its rumors and its secrets, some of which will no longer be told because he’s gone. That will sadden historians but could give sad solace to the guilty. Several people urged him to record his memories on tape, but he found the concept unpleasant. “The monkey doesn’t like that,” he’d often say when declining a proposition.
John’s interests were wide. He spoke with knowledge and eloquence about photography, art, literature, current events and Montana’s tribes. He was a frequent visitor among the Cheyenne, the Blackfeet, and Sioux and Gros Ventre people, and was adopted by the Crow Nation. He spent a lot of time in Arizona’s border country and could tell great stories about places as disparate as New York City and Zortman, Montana. He enjoyed a whiskey in the evening, but didn’t waste money on the top-shelf stuff.
His friends came from all walks of life. Hollywood stars, musicians and fine artists made pilgrimages to the store. So did railroaders, sheepherders, newsboys and travelling salesmen. Returning members of the Livingston diaspora often made a point of visiting John and the store, where the sights and sounds and smells changed very little over the decades. He made sure the windows gleamed, the hardwood floors were oiled, the sidewalks were swept or shoveled, and the American flag was in its place out front. He always had a good word for everybody. “Hey hey!” he’d say, and flash that smile.
If John forgot a name or a face, he faked it, even as the effects of dementia took hold in his last years. His warmth and his welcoming nature never faded.
He managed the Talcott cabins, a property bisected by Mission Creek, a few miles southeast of Livingston. Though he didn’t own the place, John kept it meticulous, and most people called it Fryer’s Cabin. There, he hosted everything from pig roasts and picnics to a troop of visiting Russian poets and novelists. Boys night could get raucous.
John curated a huge collection of western objects gathered by his parents and his grandfather, who bought or traded for saddles, Native American headdresses and moccasins, photographs, letters, documents, firearms and other items. They were displayed or filed in the basement of the store and visitors often gasped in wonder, if they were lucky enough to be invited to that sanctum. The collection is now in the hands of the Yellowstone Gateway Museum.
John’s great grandfather William Carr Fryer, a former Pony Express rider, came to Montana to lay telegraph wires for the railroad, then settled on a ranch on Fryer Creek near Springdale. His grandfather, John Fryer, and his wife Mae ran a store in Springdale before moving to Livingston and going into business with a partner to form Sax and Fryer.
John never married, but his family was huge. It included “the girls” at the store; Kathleen McGuire, who worked there for 54 years, and Marge Brandon, who worked there 45 years, and Debbie Bradley, who worked there on and off since the 1970s. They kept the place going after John could no longer make his daily trips from Third Street, either on foot or on his ancient bicycle, depending on his mood and the weather.
His caregivers in his later years included Rachelle Sinard, Deb Corbett, Mike Bowles, Rob Bankston, Kim Naclerio, Lori Schreiner, Mary Donathan and the late Marnie Gannon, plus others who volunteered food and comfort and affection. He appreciated them all so much and they helped him stay in his home until his final few days.
John was preceded in death by his parents Frank and Suzanne Fryer, who ran the store until John took over. Many good friends also preceded him, including loyal pal and lunch companion Larry Jones, who died a couple days before John. He is survived by cousins Judith Holbrook and Arthur Hanson of Missoula and William Carr Hanson of Napa, Idaho, and many, many close friends, especially Joe Swindlehurst and Chris Bruha.
Services are scheduled for March 23rd at 2 p.m. at the Livingston Depot Center, followed by a reception at the Livingston Elks Club. Gifts in his memory may be directed to the Livingston Depot Foundation, PO Box 1319, Livingston MT, 59047, or to Livingston Elks Lodge #246, 130 S 2nd ST, Livingston, MT 59047.
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