Kalispell: Montana’s Eden – Exhibit showcases the history of the town


Kalispell’s beginnings as a railway town shaped its beginnings. Eventually, much like today, the town became the commercial and financial center of the Flathead Valley.

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

Jacob Thomas, the museum’s executive director, said the aim was to delve into the city’s history in a way never before seen. The time had come for such an exhibit, he notes, with the recent completion of the Parkline trail through downtown and the re-release of the museum’s historic walking tour.

“There are a lot of new developments going on,” he said. “It felt like a good time to show that this is where this place started. You often see where it’s going, but it’s getting harder and harder to see where it’s coming from.

The Kalispell: Montana’s Eden exhibit tells the story of the flourishing town, from the arrival of the railroad to the present day. The title of the exhibition is a nod to the early history of the railway.

“Kalispell is such a beautiful place,” he said. “Kalispell isn’t necessarily known by that name now, but historically it was very well known as Eden of Montana.”

Originally placed to be the splitting point of the Great Northern Railway which was being built from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, 3,500 people came to the central Kalispell railroad tracks on New Year’s Day in 1892 to celebrate line completion. .

Tracklayers reached Kalispell late the day before and the first Great Northern locomotive whistled through Kalispell at 6.37am the same evening, The Kalispell Graphic reported on 1 January 1892.

“After eight months of anxious waiting, the dearest and most heartfelt wish of the people of Kalispell is consummated,” the Graphic said at the opening of the exhibition. “The Iron Horse has finally sniffed in Montana’s Garden of Eden.”

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

“There’s not a lot of new growth in downtown, so you can see what downtown was like,” Thomas said. “It gives us the opportunity to see why this place still matters.”

As well as telling the story 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 modern times,” Thomas said. “There were liveries and blacksmiths in early Kalispell, but we wanted to look at professions that still exist today rather than those that are no longer around.”

Commerce and banking laid the foundations for the first Kalispells, the exhibit notes. A feature of the screens is the history of several banks and the bankers behind them.

The Conrad National Bank is listed, founded when the three Conrad brothers – Charles, William and Warren – who had previously been successful bankers in other towns in Montana expanded their operations to Kalispell.

Representing the city’s lawyers, a black-and-white photo from the exhibit shows three stern men in suits seated at desks in a law office above Conrad’s Bank on Main Street in 1913. Recounting the stories of some of these attorneys, the exhibit examines attorney Sidney M. Logan, who was appointed as the first commissioner of the newly formed County of Flathead in 1893 and later served as mayor of Kalispell in 1903.

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

“Not only did a shirt and tie accompany the purchase of a jacket or suit, but the store kept a tailor on staff,” the exhibit notes.

Near the museum’s present location on East Second Avenue was the theater district where a theater rush occurred in the years 1907 to 1911. “Music was the most impactful performance in these theaters of vaudeville with moving images as attractions,” the exhibit notes.

Later, a new generation of theaters came to Kalispell. Thus, a cinema projector from the former Orpheum theater sits at the center of the exhibition in the theater district.

From one of these historic companies is the oldest mounted bald eagle 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 exchanged them for new boots.

In 1975 James Hollensteiner bought the building and saved the eagles. His research on 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 the existence of mounted bald eagles predating those of the museum.

Seeking to provide interaction for young visitors to the museum, youngsters can try on shoes at the Eagle Shoe Company store next to the oldest bald eagles in the world. Nearby, at a children’s table, they can try their hand at town planning by placing wooden blocks in the shape of a building on a town plan.

“They can match the locations of buildings on the map or they can design their own city by deciding where the hospital should go and where the museum should be,” Thomas said.

The largest exhibition hosted by the museum in the past 12 years, a Grand Opening Reception for Kalispell: Montana’s Eden is scheduled for Thursday, June 30 from 5-7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. The museum will serve the same period-appropriate snacks that would have been enjoyed in the early days of Kalispell. Portal Spirits Distillery will serve 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.

Managing Editor Heidi Desch can be reached at 758-4421 or [email protected]

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