Colorful Character Virgil Gust
Fall 2020 Written by Susan Metcalf Photography by Cyd Hoefle
“We have outlasted the malls and the box stores,” says 99-year-old Virgil Gust, proprietor of Gust’s Department Store on McLeod Street in Big Timber. “Now we have to outlast Amazon.”
Every day, Virgil climbs the steep steps to his office in the loft of the store and oversees the business that he and his partner J.Q. Robbins founded in 1947. Walking through the door at Gust’s is like stepping into a time machine and turning the dial back 70-plus years, except that the merchandise is perfect for the needs of the small community in 2020.
Virgil was born on the family farm in Reliance, South Dakota, in 1921.
“I was 10 when my father died,” Virgil said. “Then the Great Depression took all our family’s money. We lost our farm because the drought blew all the topsoil into big soil drifts, and the grasshoppers ate everything. We left the farm and moved to Chamberlain.”
Virgil worked cleaning the local barber shop and shining shoes until he met J.Q. Robbins, who ran the local JC Penney store. When J.Q. fired his assistant manager, Virgil stepped in and filled the role during his last two months of high school.
“Mr. Robbins called the school and asked if I could work full time and do my coursework as homework,” Virgil recalled. “They agreed to allow that, and they still gave me a diploma.”
After Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, Virgil enlisted in the Navy, serving as a torpedoman on the U.S.S. Bagley until the war ended in 1945. A replica of the Bagley, along with other treasured military memorabilia, is encased in glass in the center of the store. Virgil kept a secret log of his years on the ship, and his log has been used in the research for several books about the Bagley and the war effort.
“We didn’t get off the ship for 22 months during the time we were on the offensive,” Virgil said. “One of my best memories is when Rear Admiral Whiting accepted the surrender of enemy forces on the forecastle of our destroyer, the Bagley, off the cost of Marcus Island on Aug. 31, 1945. I was assigned to the quarter deck, so I was in charge of monitoring everyone who came on and who left the ship. I am honored to have been a part of that historic event.”
When the war ended, J.Q. had a position waiting for Virgil at a JC Penney store in Pierre, South Dakota. In 1947, J.Q. came to Montana, and Virgil followed him. They became business partners and purchased stores in Big Timber, Manhattan, Conrad and Livingston. They dissolved their partnership in the 1970s, and Virgil retained ownership of the Big Timber and Manhattan stores, and purchased a Laurel store. Eventually he sold the other two stores and retained only the Big Timber store.
Just across the street from the Big Timber store, which was formerly called the Golden Rule, stands Cole Drug. The drug store owner, Edwin Cole, had a pretty daughter named Jane. Jane had earned a degree in home economics and an advanced degree in fashion design.
“Long story short,” Virgil said with a smile, “she turned down a job with Utah Woolen Mills, and we got married. She let me have 99 percent of my wants. She only asked for 1 percent, so that made it easy for us to get along. She was very knowledgeable in merchandising, and she knew what people wanted and the sizes and colors to order it in.” Jane died in 2006, leaving Virgil to run the store with the help of his family and several faithful employees.
Debbie Beley, who has worked at Gust’s for 15 years, said, “I have enjoyed working for Virgil. He has taught me a lot, and he is about the nicest person I have ever met.”
“All three of our kids, Susan, Sara and Ed, started working in the store in the summers during their high school and college years and continued helping out over the past 40 years,” Virgil explained. “Now, they are sort of boosting me out. I mostly just show up every day.”
Virgil’s daughter, Susan St. Germain, noted, “Our customers have been amazingly loyal — especially during this pandemic. They have been very patient about waiting for their orders to come in. We are constantly trying to find new ways to advertise and bring people into the store. Dad created Gust’s Bucks as a reward system long before chain stores started using reward systems. Probably about a third of our business is our custom T-shirt and embroidery business.”
“I have had a lot of people help me,” Virgil said. “My mother passed away when I was a sophomore in high school, and a woman named Margaret Plot and her family took me in. A small community is about helping each other. We have many customers who just don’t want to drive to Billings or Bozeman, and we also have good tourist traffic in the summer.”
Virgil enjoys hunting, camping, boating, bowling and gardening. He has no immediate plans to retire and pursue leisure pursuits — although he did build his own greenhouse during the store’s pandemic slowdown.
“Big Timber has been very good to us,” Virgil said. “It has been a great place to live and raise our family. The Sweet Grass County people are loyal and take care of their own.”