An Odd Corner of History Goes Up in Flames

By Beacon Staff

After sitting for years with its future uncertain – filled with historical artifacts, but closed to visitors – the county museum’s transition from defunct to a smoldering pile of ashes came quickly.

The county land where the building sat has been bought back by its original owners, and the county has until April 30 to return the property to its original state – an empty field. After attempts to auction and then sell the building went without offers, the county asked three local volunteer fire departments to burn it as part of a live-training exercise.

Early last week, the white building, its road-side wall covered with large red letters reading “Museum” and a smaller sign, “Closed for Repairs,” was intact, but in disrepair. Windowpanes were broken and the attached wood porch was sagging. Most of the artifacts inside – with the exception of a small piano, a stuffed bear head and a mounted deer – had already been packed.

South Kalispell firefighters spray water to maintain control of the burning Flathead County Museum building. The building was used by three local volunteer fire departments for live-training exercises throughout the day.

By mid-week the porch was demolished, leaving broken boards resting along the side of the building. An excavator had razed a dilapidated railroad car from the state’s centennial railroad celebration that had sat on the property and county trucks hauled away its refuse for scrap.

And Saturday, the museum was on fire.

Part of the museum’s collection has already been loaned to the Museum at Central School, while larger pieces – old farm tools, photography equipment, medical instruments – were stored in metal containers on county land or, because they couldn’t be repaired or were without value to the museum, destroyed. A train engine used for hauling ties from the Great Northern’s Somers Tie Plant will return to downtown Somers.

“I hate to see the thing burn up,” County Commissioner Joe Brenneman said. “There’s a lot of material and lumber that could be salvaged and used, but no one was interested when we tried to auction it and because of our deadline with the family there’s not a whole lot of options.”

The history of the museum itself is a bit unclear. Many county officials and residents don’t remember a time when the building, located on the south end of town just off Highway 93 near Gardner’s RV, was ever open. Current members of the county museum board joined long after the museum was closed to the public.

Art Bielz, with the Smith Valley Fire Department, walks past an interior window under a mounted deer in the Flathead County Museum. The deer was one of the last artifacts to be removed and stored before the building was destroyed.

The building and part of the property were donated to the county in the early-1980s by Henry Siderius on the condition it be used for a museum. The county later purchased more land to complete the 15-acre museum campus.

The museum was open for around five years, according to one local history buff, and was a bustling tourist hub, drawing hundreds as they headed in or out of Kalispell. Plagued with financial troubles, it closed its doors around 1988.

The board, which essentially operated without any county funds, was never able to raise the money to reopen the building. Frustrated by what they saw as a lack of support – or an inability to provide support – by the county commissioners, most of the board’s members quit in 2006.

“Arguably, had commissioners wanted to put a lot of money into it, it could’ve reopened,” Brenneman said. “There was never the funds or sufficient public interest and support to warrant that. And now, if we want to put money into something, it should probably go into roads, not into museums.”

And as the county museum struggled to reopen, another museum in the city was beginning to flourish, drawing money, time and attention. “I think the focus turned to the Museum at Central School, and they appointed a real active committee and they got it off the floor and working,” Commissioner Dale Lauman said. “I don’t know if the community can support two museums.”

An excavator with a thumb rips into a passenger car stored on the Flathead County Museum property. The car was demolished and sold for scrap.

Brad Hanson, president of the museum board, said that’s always been a question for the board, but said members are still holding out hope that that’s not true, and looking for another site to house the museum. And, because around $200,000 generated from the sale of the land will likely be used for future museum activities, the board could finally have the beginning piece of the financial boost it has sought for 20 years.

“It won’t get it up and running – we’d still need more donations and help from the community – but it would be a start,” Hanson said.