POLEBRIDGE – On a cool, autumn day here last week, the sky alternated between the sun pushing through to illuminate the Livingston Range, and the first snow of the season. The locals coming into the Polebridge Mercantile seemed puzzled that, after a long summer, it was once again snowing.
“I saw this scattering of white stuff that was all over the ground,” said one man entering and heading for the coffee. “What is that?”
Earlier in the day, someone had dropped off a load of firewood. Acknowledging the snow, Deborah Kaufman ordered more wood. Deborah and her husband Dan Kaufman, the eighth owners of the currently-for-sale Polebridge Mercantile, are heading into their fourteenth winter in this tiny outpost with a saloon and hostel along the North Fork of the Flathead. The price tag is $950,000, which includes the rental cabins and outbuildings on the 22 acre-parcel.
By most estimates, about 90 people live here, north of where the road crosses Coal Creek and south of the Canadian border. For many in this community and the tourists passing through, the Mercantile is Polebridge’s center: a place to get a few gallons of gas, make a phone call, catch up on gossip and sample the goods from what might be the best bakery in western Montana.
Deborah, Dan and their son Konnor – who was an infant when the family moved here in 1994 – have improved the Mercantile from a place with a few dingy propane lamps and no real refrigerator, to a warm general store with everything from meatball subs to pastries, fleece socks to fishing lures.
“I think that is behind different people saying, ‘I hope the store doesn’t sell,’” Deborah said. “What we did, I think, is just make it more friendly for people to stop in.”
Polebridge is an undeniably romantic place and the buyer inquiries have been numerous. Just this summer, Deborah said, a young couple came in to ask about it, but the wife was obviously more interested than the husband, who was a lawyer in Washington, D.C.
“She was getting so emotional about the store that she literally had tears in her eyes,” Deborah said. “Her husband did not make eye contact with me.”
Deborah thought the couple was serious and told her Realtor to expect a phone call, but they never heard from the young couple again. Deborah shrugged, acknowledging the singular appeal of owning and running a bakery, lodging, and general store in a beautiful but rugged location, particularly with a couple.
“Since this is a lifestyle, you pretty much have to be in agreement,” she said. “Any time you live with your business it’s a pretty intense relationship.”
But the North Fork community, she said, is tight-knit. In such a remote location, people rely on each other more – if not as much as when the area was homesteaded in the early 1900s. When the generator for the North Fork hostel caught fire and the owner was away, a resident threw logging chains around the shed and towed it away from the building, onto the snow, then beat out the remaining flames. When someone attending a wedding party had a heart attack, Deborah called 911 and directed the rescue helicopter to Polebridge, running outside with a flashlight to signal to the pilot a good field to land.
“When there’s nobody else, you just do whatever you can think of to do,” she said.
On Thanksgiving, everyone gathers at the community hall up the road for a massive, potluck feast. Different political views exist among North Forkers, and debate regularly ensues over whether the dirt road should be paved or whether it acts as a kind of “sifter,” keeping out some of the less-adventurous travelers. But the similarities among Polebridge’s residents outweigh their differences.
“People either love it here or they don’t see the point,” she said. “There is a common denominator of everybody here; the North Fork is unique – an emotional place.”
Which begs the question: Why leave? Deborah said she and Dan, both in their late 50s, would like to spend part of the year in Costa Rica and the rest somewhere in Montana or Idaho, where most of their children and 14 grandchildren reside.
Dan, a blackbelt in Karate, isn’t sure whether he would like to keep baking or teach martial arts. Deborah, who spent a dark, first winter caring for newborn Konnor and tending the store, said she would like to be able to spend more time with her son than the store sometimes allows.
“We can’t really make any plans too specific until it does sell; it occupies a lot of our time and a lot of our thought,” she said. “We are not retiring but we just feel like we’re ready for a different chapter.”
Until then, the Kaufmans continue to tend the Mercantile while the snow starts to fall and the locals, Glacier Park workers and tourists file in every morning, then take off down the dusty road.
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