Fourteen years ago, Columbia Falls’ Masonic Lodge looked like any other windowless building made out of cement: plain. Nobody gave it a second glance.
“It was a big monolithic rock,” says Mark Johnson, current president of the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and secretary-treasurer of the Columbia Falls Community Foundation.
This explains why, when the foundation decided to launch a series of beautification projects in Columbia Falls, the Masonic Lodge was one of the first items on its list. But its plan to spruce up the building quickly moved beyond the realm of aesthetics to enter that of history.
In 2003, the foundation hired local artists Clark Heyer and Maria Vekkos to paint a mural that would cover two of the lodge’s walls. The mural was to be a nod to Columbia Falls’ roots, depicting the first people who had made the town their home when it was founded in 1891. Basing their art on historic photos, Heyer and Vekkos transformed the blank walls of the Masonic Lodge into a larger-than-life painting of some of Columbia Falls’ earliest inhabitants. The mural’s depiction of life in 1891 was juxtaposed against its modern surroundings, mingling history with the present.
But 14 years is a long time to weather the elements, and over time the mural’s vibrant colors began to fade and cracks appeared in the lodge’s walls.
“It became more and more obvious that the mural needed to be completely refurbished,” says Columbia Falls Councilman Mike Shepard.
Fast forward to June of this year. The foundation, in agreement with Shepard’s assessment, gathered the funds necessary to bring Heyer and Vekkos back to repaint the entire mural. Photos taken by the Masonic Lodge of the original mural helped the artists recreate it as closely as possible, and the restored version was completed the last week of June. The differences are drastic.
“It’s like night and day,” Shepard says. “It looks brand new.” He adds that he was standing by the building last week and saw six out-of-state visitors pull over in a 30-minute interval to take pictures.
But while the mural may serve as a tourist attraction, it’s also more than that.
“It provides a place to gather, for the people of Columbia Falls to know more about their history,” Johnson says. “Oftentimes Columbia Falls gets the short shrift in the valley. Every place in the Flathead has unique qualities, and it’s time we celebrated ours.”
He continues, “We want to show people that we’re not a community that just popped up. We have history. And hopefully young families see that and think about relocating here.”
For the foundation, which is composed of 10 volunteers, the mural restoration is just one of many projects to enhance and enrich community members’ lives. There are plans in the works to create an entrance park to welcome tourists and residents alike to Columbia Falls and to line Nucleus Avenue with decorative lighting. And, Johnson says, it wouldn’t hurt to have more murals.
“We don’t lack for something to do here in Columbia Falls,” he says.