Kalispell: Montana's Eden -- Exhibit showcases history of town

·6 min read

Jun. 26—Kalispell's beginning as a railroad town shaped its early history. Eventually, not unlike today, the city became the trade and financial center of the Flathead Valley.

The Northwest Montana History Museum is telling the story of Kalispell in a new permanent exhibition that aims to bring the early town to life. While much of the museum includes pieces of Kalispell's history, this is the first time the museum has curated an entire exhibit focusing solely on Kalispell.

Jacob Thomas, executive director of the museum, said the goal is to dive into the history of the town in a way that hasn't happened before. The timing was right to bring forward such an exhibit, he notes, with the recent completion of the Parkline Trail through downtown and the republishing of the museum's historical walking tour.

"There's a lot of new development happening," he said. "It seemed like the right time to show this is where this place started. We often see where it's going, but it's becoming harder and harder to see where it came from."

The exhibit Kalispell: Montana's Eden tells the story of the thriving city, from the railroad's arrival up to the present day. The title of the exhibit is a nod to that early railroad history.

"Kalispell is such a beautiful place," he said. "Kalispell is not necessarily known as that now, but historically it very much was known as Montana's Eden."

Originally platted to be the division point for the Great Northern Railway that was being constructed from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, 3,500 people came to the railroad tracks in the center of Kalispell on New Year's Day in 1892 to celebrate the completion of the line.

The tracklayers reached Kalispell late the day before and the first Great Northern locomotive whistled in Kalispell at 6:37 o'clock the same evening, The Kalispell Graphic reported on Jan. 1, 1892.

"After eight months of waiting anxiety, the most devout and earnest wish of the people of Kalispell is consummated," the opening of the exhibition quotes the Graphic as saying. "The iron horse has at last snorted in the Garden of Eden of Montana."

THREE YEARS in the making, the exhibit features photographs of historic buildings and people, along with artifacts, many of which came from businesses that inhabited downtown. Kalispell was officially incorporated in 1892. The town was selected to be the county seat in 1893 and with that came a variety of services centered in the community.

"There's not a lot of new growth in the downtown so you can see what the downtown was," Thomas said. "This gives us the opportunity to take a look at why this place still matters."

Besides telling the history of the town, a theme runs through the exhibit — the occupations and businesses of early Kalispell.

"We wanted to make sure there was a connection to the modern day," Thomas said. "There were liveries and blacksmiths in early Kalispell, but we wanted to look at occupations that still exist today rather than those that aren't here anymore."

Commerce and banking laid the foundation for early Kalispell, the exhibition notes. A feature of the displays is the history of several banks and the bankers behind them.

Listed is the Conrad National Bank which was founded when the three Conrad brothers — Charles, William and Warren — who had been previously successful bankers in other Montana cities expanded their operations to Kalispell.

Representative of the lawyers of the town, one black and white photo in the exhibit shows three stern men in suits sitting at desks at a law office located above the Conrad Bank on Main Street in 1913. Telling the stories of some of those attorneys, the display examines lawyer Sidney M. Logan, who was appointed the first commissioner of the newly-formed Flathead County in 1893 and later served as Kalispell's mayor in 1903.

EARLY KALISPELL formed around districts in the downtown area with similar businesses clustered together. Kalispell as a thriving community was once the home of several department stores, including Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney. The institution of Robbin & Robbin, a luxury clothing store on Main Street, was known as the finest menswear shop between Chicago and Seattle.

"Not only did a shirt and tie come with the purchase of a jacket or suit, but the store kept a tailor on staff," the exhibit notes.

Nearby the museum's present location on Second Avenue East was the theater district where a rush on playhouses occurred in the years from 1907 to 1911. "Music was the most impactful performance in these vaudeville playhouses with moving pictures as attractions," the exhibit notes.

Later, a new generation of theaters came to Kalispell. Thus, a movie projector from the old Orpheum theater sits in the center of the theater district's display.

Coming from one of those historical businesses is the oldest mounted bald eagles in the world. The eagles were killed by a fur trader who took them to the Eagle Shoe Company store in what is now Rocky Mountain Outfitter on Main Street. He traded them for new boots.

In 1975, James Hollensteiner purchased the building and saved the eagles. His research into the eagles took him to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Institution, among other organizations, to confirm that the organizations were unaware of any mounted bald eagles that predated those at the museum.

Looking to provide interaction for young visitors to the museum, youngsters can try on shoes at the Eagle Shoe Company store beside the oldest bald eagles in the world. Nearby at a kid-sized table, they can try their hand at city planning by placing wooden building-shaped blocks on a planning map.

"They can match up where the buildings are located on the map or they can design their own city deciding where the hospital should go and where the museum should be," Thomas said.

The largest exhibition curated by the museum in the past 12 years, a grand opening reception for Kalispell: Montana's Eden is set for Thursday, June 30 from 5 to 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. The museum will be serving the same period-appropriate snacks that would have been enjoyed in the early days of Kalispell. Portal Spirits Distillery will be serving historically-inspired drinks.

The Northwest Montana History Museum is located at 124 Second Ave. East in Kalispell. For questions, call the museum at 406-756-8381.

Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.