The King Biscuit Blues Festival is one of the nation's foremost showcases of blues music and the best part, it's right here in historic downtown Helena. For Sam Elardo, getting back to where it all began has inspired him to embark on a trip down memory lane and roll up his sleeves to re-create a little piece of the blues history down on what used to be known as Biscuit Row.
“The project started with the five historic buildings that I purchased from Morris Gist. Back then they were a number of things there from juke joints, restaurants, African American Teen club, liquor stores, gambling joints and an even an Army surplus store,” said Elardo.
According to Elardo, the Rightor family built these buildings but businesses started dying out around the late 80s.
“I've been doing this since 1973 and I used to be a man and ladies store merchant in the area so I understand the ins and outs of small businesses and this community in which they survive,” he said.
Elardo stated that the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson played his harmonica back then in one of the very same buildings that are still standing today.
“He wasn't singing at the time but boy what a piece of history to recall,” commented Elardo.
Elardo stated that Biscuit Row was the home of Interstate Grocery, which was the home of the King Biscuit Flour and Corn Meal.
“Everybody who worked here back then had something to do with the King Biscuit,” stated Elardo.
Elardo said that he always dreamed of owning these building one day and talked some of his buddies into buying the stores across the street to create a whole street worth of biscuit's historical building restorations.
“We call one side of the street Biscuit Row North and Biscuit Row South,” said Elardo.
The 1920s corner service station, one of the first in Helena, is expected be transformed into a really nice pizza parlor, hamburger, or barbeque joint to encourage more to see during the King Biscuit Blues Festival.
“It's got the pull-up doors, which opens up some great possibilities for an open seating area,” he continued.
Elardo says he's also got future plans in the works for a bluesman and singer from Clarksdale, Miss. by the name of Sean Apple to operate a blues club out of the building that was once an original blues juke joint. It has been recently updated as far as plumbing and electrical and heat and air are concerned.
Elardo stated that along with the purchased buildings, he also bought a group of apartments located behind the old juke joint on Missouri Street that have been restored and are currently all being rented to local tenants.
Page 2 of 3 - “I'm in partnership with five other people on this but these apartments are a project of my own,” said Elardo.
Through the tour of the new renovations of what will be known as the Market Alley Flats, Elardo reported that each apartment has been renovated complete with hardwood floors made in Helena, a gulley kitchen, back patio space and a security system with several cameras on the premises.
“I have been working on these apartments for about two years and I can't wait for the final product,” he stressed.
Currently, work continues on the Market Alley Flats, despite the recent storm drain repair that Mims Landscaping is replacing. The replacement of the storm drain is the result of years of erosion and weathering, which caused the drain to collapse.
“We're working on getting the issue taken care of but it has caused such a mess,” commented Elardo.
Elardo stated that the additional property that was bought by some private investors will be called Blue Note Diner and it will eventually feature a juke joint atmosphere with a 1950s blues feel but modernized for today's ever changing needs.
“The building next door is expected to be the official King Biscuit offices complete with a storefront where King Biscuit merchandise can be purchased,” stated Elardo. “We hope to establish an official space for the King Biscuit Festival representative and the workers that have helped make the King Biscuit Blues Festival what it is today. Just a place to hang their hats.”
Elardo reports that the project is on schedule but due to the multiple projects, there's just no way to get them all done at once.
“We anticipate that we will have Blue Note Diner and the KBB offices open and running before October's Blues fest next year,” commented Elardo.
Elardo says that right now, three streetlights are expected to be placed in front of Biscuit Row North. He explained that the general concept of the use of the buildings that he has acquired in the spirit of tourism and historical music awareness isn't set in stone yet. However, he said, there are several who are interested in restoring these significantly historic buildings.
According to Elardo, apartment space, or lofts, will be available in three of the buildings. The spaces are expected to be used as another storefront, a wine and beer bar, two little stores, a fine restaurant and a café.
Structurally, Elardo reports that not much more renovation will be required – it's just a matter of cleaning out the spaces.
“We have so many historical pieces and lots of interests in the space that we have,” he continued.
Elardo stated that the work began about three years ago and is still a work in progress.
Page 3 of 3 - “I don't know what it's going to end up being, but I think it's going to be something Helena is going to enjoy. We're incorporating a lot of the old Helena with a modern twist,” concluded Elardo.
This is the 22nd restoration in Helena he has worked on since 1974.