Rustle Up Some History

Art, architecture and artifacts connect present to past in Kalispell.

Even if you’re a history buff, you may not have heard of Frank Bird Linderman. I certainly hadn’t, until the day I wandered into Kalispell’s The Museum at Central School. But as I learned that afternoon, Linderman’s story is the story of anyone who comes to Montana seeking adventure or discovery, quiet solitude or cultural enrichment, love or money.

Linderman came to the Flathead Valley in 1885 from Ohio. After trapping for a few years, he began a pilgrimage across Montana and its infant economy: He worked as an assayer in Butte, a newspaperman in Sheridan, a politician in Helena, and finally a writer on Flathead Lake.

Today, objects from Linderman’s life make up one of four permanent exhibits at the Northwest Montana History Museum. Here you’ll find his banged-up assayer’s scale, a manual printing press and old traps. Here too are headdresses and other artifacts reflecting his deep friendships with members of the Flathead, Kootenai, Crow, Blackfeet, Cree and Chippewa tribes.

And all around are his writings: personal letters, poems and original copies of his numerous books. Linderman’s enduring legacy is found in these volumes, several of which chronicle the lives and legends of Montana’s First Peoples. Those books are now regarded as cornerstone texts in the study of Native American history.

Though he died nearly 80 years ago, Linderman nonetheless embodies the adventuresome hope and love of nature that brought me to Montana — and that continues to lure visitors and new residents to this place.

Across Kalispell, beautifully preserved architecture and absorbing artifacts echo that time, not so long ago, when Kalispell lay at the edge of the Western frontier. On that pristine blank slate, fascinating stories were written. Here are a few more worth reading:

A Library of Art

In 1901, the New York-based tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie granted $10,000 for the construction of a public library in Kalispell. It might not sound like a lot of money now, but what it bought stands today as one of the most beautiful buildings in Northwest Montana — a classical-revival-style building with a distinctive domed octagonal entry at one corner.

Beauty doesn’t stop at the front door. The old Carnegie Library is now home to the Hockaday Museum of Art, one of the finest collections of Western art in the state. The permanent “Crown of the Continent” exhibition features classic works by some of Montana’s best-known Western artists, including Charles M. Russell and O.C. Seltzer. The collection also captures the nostalgia of the early days of Glacier National Park and the Great Northern Railroad, including works from John Fery and Winold Reiss. Rotating exhibits at the Hockaday reflect a vision of the region as captured by living artists.

The Man Who Made Kalispell

One of the best-known names around these parts is that of Charles E. Conrad, a founder of Kalispell. Along with establishing the Kalispell Townsite Company and eventually the Conrad National Bank, Conrad had a gracious Victorian home built for his beloved family in 1895 in what was then a wilderness.

Today the Conrad Mansion Museum preserves the opulence enjoyed by its namesake, and offers visitors a sense of what it was like to live here more than 100 years ago. Inside you’ll find remarkable examples of high technology from a bygone era, including a bank of original Edison light bulbs (they still illuminate), a first-generation automatic dishwasher, a cleverly designed clothes drying rack and other custom-built creature comforts.

 A Grand Place to Lay Your Head

Since 1912, the historic Kalispell Grand Hotel in downtown Kalispell has welcomed guests from loggers to international travelers. From its opening, the hotel served a wealthy crowd and famed guests often gathered around its famous fountain and sitting area.

In later decades the hotel fell into disrepair; but after coming under new ownership in 1989 it underwent extensive remodeling. It 1991 the Grand reopened, bringing the stately hotel back to its former glory — right down to the original oak stairway and pressed-tin ceiling. Today, guests can choose from rooms that bring the history of the hotel to life in modern convenience.

A Road Trip Back in Time

If you come here with a car, then make sure to pick up a copy of the Lower Valley Driving Tour, a 30-page booklet produced by volunteers with the local nonprofit History is Posh. Laid out as a 62-mile loop, the tour leads past notable landmarks around Kalispell. At each waypoint, the booklet offers fascinating historical context, along with some great old photos. Look for printed copies at local shops or the Kalispell Visitor Information Center, located at 15 Depot Park.

If you’re on foot, you can get up-close feel for downtown’s history thanks to a 40-page Historical Walking Tour guidebook. You’ll have a lovely stroll — and you’ll learn plenty about the architecture and commercial history of downtown. You can download a copy at this link.

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