Celebrating Christmas in the Conrad Mansion

By Beacon Staff

In the earliest days of Kalispell’s history, Christmas was a town event celebrated at the Conrad family mansion. Today, thanks to a group of local volunteers and an annual arts fair, the Conrad Mansion Museum is still a local hub for holiday activity.

In the early 1890s, Charles and Alicia Conrad and their children moved to the Flathead Valley, built an elaborate and massive home and helped found Kalispell. Now, their home is the Conrad Mansion Museum: Architecturally untouched and largely furnished in its original state, serving as a cornerstone of Kalispell history.

When the Conrad family occupied the mansion, Christmastime there was, by all accounts, a spectacular event.

Andrea Wood, Michelle Morgan, Kyle Wood and Sharon Pearson, left to right, watch the 19-foot Christmas tree being brought into the Conrad Mansion.

Area residents who didn’t have family to celebrate the holiday would come to the house by sleigh and spend Christmas Eve and Christmas night in the guest quarters on the third floor. Preparing meals required an all-day effort, especially Alicia Conrad’s pudding, which among many other ingredients included four cups of suet, or animal fat.

And in the mansion’s great hall, with its massive native stone fireplace and golden oak staircase, the Conrads’ legendary two-story Christmas tree towered, ablaze with hundreds of beeswax candles.

Now, near the end of October each year, about 25 volunteers converge on the mansion to decorate the home – inside and out – in preparation for the mansion’s largest fundraiser: the Artisan and Holiday Gift Bazaar.

“The driving goal is to make the house especially beautiful for the Christmas season, because the Conrads did the same,” Rita Fitzsimmons, a long-time volunteer, said. “We try to at least reflect the mood and feeling of what someone would’ve experienced when the Conrads lived in the house.”

Snow Line Tree Company employee Hank Fister carries one of many wreaths to the Conrad Mansion.

In its 25th year, the bazaar includes about 50 different vendors, all with handmade arts, crafts, clothing, jewelry or food. On Friday, Oct. 29, the mansion hosts a preview party, where guests enjoy live music, hors d’oeuvres, champagne, and early buying privileges. Tickets are $50 and limited.

Then, on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the rest of the community is welcome to enjoy the decorations and shop the bazaar. During the event, Bianchi Catering sells lunch and goodies on the covered porch. Admission is $5 for adults and $1 for children. All proceeds go to support the mansion.

“The craft show literally helps us pay our bills through the winter,” Kate Daniels, the museum’s director, said. “And the wonderful thing about the decorations is that they stay up through the holiday season, so that the mansion is decorated for tours and people can come and enjoy them.”

Each year, Snow Line Tree Company delivers an 18- to 20-foot tree, and while organizers don’t risk using lit candles as decorations, the tree’s adornments – Radko glass ornaments – fit the home’s Victorian roots. The Christopher Radko Company creates reproductions of vintage style ornaments, like the ones that may have decorated the Conrad’s tree at the turn of the twentieth century.

This year, some of the event’s original ornaments will also be on display. In the beginning, unlit candles, gifts, cranberries and popcorn were used as decorations. And later, Shirley and Moose Miller, owners of Moose’s Saloon, hand cut and painted over 200 ducks, geese, bears and assorted ornaments to adorn the tree.

Clinton DeLong begins to untie the rope containing the limbs of a grand fir tree. The tree is the focal point of Conrad Mansion’s Christmas bazaar.

Organizing the massive event and decorating the house takes hours of work, and volunteers describe the process as alternately peaceful and celebratory, where everyone is racing, shouting and singing as they hustle to arrange their crafts or cover the tree.

But for volunteers like Nikki Sliter, who has helped organize the event since its inception, decorating the mansion is, in many ways, the kickoff to their own holiday season.

“It wouldn’t be Christmas without it – or sure not fall, anyway,” Sliter said. “We didn’t expect it to last this long, but I think that’s a testament to how good of a time we have – it’s really a kick in the pants.”