For Sale: A Corner of Kalispell History

By Beacon Staff

A piece of Kalispell history, remarkable both for its original owners and most recent resident, is up for sale.

In the early 1890s, a wealthy pioneer family, Charles and Alicia Conrad and their children, moved to the Flathead Valley, built an elaborate and massive home and helped found the town of Kalispell. Today, the Conrad Mansion Museum – architecturally untouched and largely restored and furnished to its original state – offers a glimpse of luxurious, pioneer living and acts as a cornerstone of Kalispell history.

But there was another, lesser-known building, impressive in size and style in its own right, on the Conrad’s 70-plus acre property.

Directly east of the mansion, just before the landscape drops down toward the Conrad Cemetery, the remnants of a stone wall from the Conrad stables and carriage house sit among modern homes. The immense building was broken apart and moved from the spot in 1928, but it wasn’t destroyed: Today, it makes up five individual buildings – four homes and one business, Big Bill’s tattoo parlor.

Photographs of actress Virginia Wood are organized across a table in the carriage house. Wood, who acted in films such as “Hello Dolly” and “Guide for the Married Man” owned the house until her death last April.

The most recognizable of those homes is now for sale. Located on the corner of Woodland Avenue and Third Street East, just north of the mansion, the house has the telltale turret and gable that were the centerpieces of the original Conrad structure.

Alonzo Dean, then manager of Kalispell’s J.C. Penney store, was the first resident of the remodeled carriage house. Dean also owned the two homes – also former pieces of the carriage house – immediately behind his residence.

Beyond its significance as past Conrad property, the home’s most recent owner, Virginia Wood, was remarkable in her own right.

Wood moved to Eastern Montana as a young teen and gained her first notoriety when she took the Montana Bonanza Queen crown in 1949.

“Part of winning the crown then was that you were offered a contract with 20th Century Fox,” James Carlat, one of Wood’s four sons, said. “My mom passed on it to get married. Ten years later when she was divorced, she went back and they still gave her a try.”

From the 1960s through the 1970s, Wood acted in several movies, including “Spinout” with Elvis Presley, “Lady in Cement” with Frank Sinatra and “A Guide for the Married Man.” At the end of her acting career, Wood retired to Kalispell, where she spent her time painting and sculpting.

A National Register of Historic Places plaque marks the entrance to the historic carriage house on Woodland Avenue.

“She immediately loved everything about this house, all the older quirks and style,” Carlat said. “She always put her coffee cups through the serving counter in the kitchen to the parlor, before she walked around. I guess she felt she was doing it the right way.”

Locally, Wood is also known for her large collection of showy hats and her gregarious attitude. When her house was for sale before her death, Wood would entertain interested buyers with Hollywood stories and pictures and tours of her historic home.

Wood died in April at the age of 78, leaving a local piece of history up for sale.

Carlat hopes the next owner will appreciate and preserve the historical character of the home. Ideally, he’d like to see the house under the umbrella of the Conrad Mansion Museum.

The mansion, though, is owned by the city of Kalispell, but operated as a nonprofit corporation that relies on private donations and grants to maintain the facility. With an annual operating budget of less than $200,000 and pressing upgrades, procuring the nearby piece of carriage house is necessarily low on the priority list.

“It’s an exciting prospect to think of acquiring another piece of Conrad property, but it would take a very generous person to buy and set up an endowment to provide for the future upkeep of that property to make it possible,” Mark Norley, museum board chairman, said. “And there are other projects we need to focus on completing first.”

Among the board’s priorities, Norley said, are providing public restroom facilities on site, stabilizing the basement foundation, a leaky water system and a new boiler, among others.

“We have to focus first on our mission to educate the community and maintain the piece of history we’re lucky enough to have,” Mansion Director Kate Daniels said.