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LEWISTOWN - On her way home from school, Kathy Simpson and her sisters would stop at Sears where her dad worked to con him out of a quarter - enough to cover a candy bar and a chocolate-flavored Coke at the Bon Ton.

For 100 years, it's been the place for sodas and shakes in Lewistown, and for something just as sweet - flirtin'.

"You name it - chocolate Cokes, Muddy Rivers, Calypsos - they had them all, and everybody had their favorite," Simpson said. "It's just where everybody came to do their flirting. It's a good common meeting ground."

The Bon Ton is one the last old-time soda fountain shops in Montana, preserving a more innocent time of penny candy and 5-cent Cokes.

Poodle skirts and letter sweaters are displayed as memorabilia beside a Lawrence Welk record. A tin sign boasts "Squirt, the quality soft drink." Green Rivers flow and Black & White is both a chocolate syrup concoction with seltzer and vanilla ice cream and the color of the floor tiles.

"Sitting at that counter is really special," said Moore rancher Jim Janicek, reminiscing with his wife Barb. "I had a million of those sarsaparillas for a dime."

Stories from long ago

Newspapers framed on the wall share stories of longtime customers - Roberta Donoven, whose dad gave her money to buy the Sunday Chicago Tribune at the Bon Ton so she could read the funnies during the Great Depression.

And then there's the love story of Herb and Betty Tindall. She was busing tables at the Bon Ton in June 1948, and he came in after school to see her. It wasn't long before he offered her a ride home, even though she lived just a block away.

Today the couple smiling at each other across the counter are owners Bill and Delci Plouffe. They scramble from booth to counter, serving up scoops of ice cream and waiting for cook Carl Griffin to ping a bell signaling the burgers are ready.

"Here's your sweet potato fries," Bill Plouffe said, sliding a heaping plate across the green counter. "Try it with a little marshmallow cream. It's like Thanksgiving came early."

Bottles of caramel, coconut, butter rum, root beer, kiwi and peach syrups line the wood back bar. Its rounded edges and metal trim capture the 1920s art deco style, but it's the two glamorous flappers carved in metal and positioned on opposite sides on mirrors that people remember and return to see.

The soda fountain and the 3,000 pounds of black, white and brown marble that surrounds it date back to the 1930s.

The stools that line it and the long green counter on either side of it are unofficially reserved for the older men who come in for coffee and, when they are tempted, a cinnamon roll.

'Such an innocent time'

That's the way it's always been said Maxine Lechner, who first started coming to the Bon Ton 60 years ago as a teenager growing up in nearby Denton. After she got married, her drink of choice changed from cherry Cokes to coffee, but she still sips them at the Bon Ton.

"This is where you came to flirt with boys," she said, explaining that tall booths in the back offered a little privacy. "It was such an innocent time."

Constructed in 1883, the building wasn't always about peachy keen fun. It was once Carson's Saloon, where according to an old newspaper article, gentlemen could slip upstairs to "visit" ladies.

But by 1908, the owner lamented to a customer that business was bad. That night Charles Williams bought the bar, finalizing the deal with a handshake.

He renamed it the Bon Ton, using the French word for good quality to add an air of sophistication. Instead of foamy beers in mugs, his new shop sold flavored sodas and milkshakes in elegant glasses with frilled edges.

Going into business

The business stayed in the family until the early 1990s, when Delci Plouffe's neighbor Jan Gore took over. Health problems led Gore to often close the business and eventually she put it up for sale. When Delci Plouffe learned that potential buyers were considering changing the old soda fountain into a hardware shop, she and her husband Bill decided to try the restaurant business.

"The Bon Ton has always been the Bon Ton, and it needs to stay that way," Delci Plouffe said.

Each day, the Plouffes write the specials in neon pink or green chalk on a blackboard behind the old-time cash register. The day of our visit it was the Bon Ton burger and a 5-cent Coke.

All the burgers and sandwiches are named after longtime Lewistown businesses, some that have since closed their doors. The menu describes each meal but also details a little history: The Arro, a ham, hard-boiled egg, cheese, tomato and lettuce sandwich, is named after the confectionary and ice cream parlor where the Catholic school kids went after class.

Keeping traditions alive

Growing up in Lewistown, Delci Plouffe said it's important to keep the town traditions alive. For some, that's as easy as serving their childhood favorites and for others, it's just the family feeling that hits them when they walk in.

"Now we're trying to get the high schoolers to hang out here, so that they can come back in 50 years and have those same memories," Delci Plouffe said. "That's definitely what drives us - the memories that people have."

Her mother, Donna Ferdinand, bakes pies and cinnamon rolls. Butterscotch candies and gumballs fill jars in the front of the shop, and a case in the back is lined with chocolate-covered nuts and caramels.

On weekends, her dad, city planner Dwayne Ferdinand, washes dishes, while the Plouffes' son dreams up syrup combinations for his Italian sodas.

Delci Plouffe dreams of one day expanding the business to the second floor, where tall ceilings and wooden crown molding remain, inviting customers to a more romantic dining experience.

More importantly, she hopes to give favorite drinks and dishes to a new generation of central Montanans.

For Mary Satterfield it was always the banana split made to her liking with scoops of Rocky Road, maple nut and vanilla topped with hot fudge syrup.

These days she's just as likely to eat a salad as a sundae, but what's the harm in having a scoop of mint chocolate chip afterward?

Just as her mom brought her to the Bon Ton for ice cream on special occasions, Satterfield has made a habit of bringing her 15-year-old granddaughter, Sierra, to the soda fountain shop to discover Italian sodas and even indulge in a Forbidden Fudge Brownie Sundae.

As they leave, they pass by the shop's slogan still painted on the storefront windows: "The Bon Ton - the place you want to be!"

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