Marking 100 Years and Still Seeking Common Ground

By Beacon Staff

POLSON – During a recent afternoon at the Polson Flathead Historical Museum, a young girl sat inside a teepee in the children’s area, playing with a video game contraption. The scene perfectly encapsulated the passage of 100 years in Polson.

As this city, located on one of Montana’s seven Indian reservations, passes the century mark, myriad emotions have risen. While a 100-year anniversary is a milestone of note, the town’s origins are a bitter memory for some residents.

Members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are in the unique position of being a minority on their own reservation. The shift in this population balance arose in 1910, the same year of Polson’s incorporation, when the Flathead Reservation opened for settlement.

In March, the CSKT Tribal Council chose to pull out of Polson’s commemoration events. In a interview with the Missoulian, spokesman Rob McDonald said tribal members “were uneasy with the direction” events in the commemoration were taking.

While Lois Hart, the museum’s president, and the commemoration’s principle organizer, was saddened by the tribe’s withdrawal. She said she is ensuring that the tribe’s history plays a central role in the upcoming events.

“I hope we can move one step forward in understanding each other,” she said.

Today the tribe is slowly buying back land for its people, slightly easing the reservation’s existing checkerboard land ownership. Perhaps with the passing of another century, the 200th commemoration of Polson will be a happier one.

A short overview of the city’s first 100 years:

Henry Lambert operated a general store at the foot of Flathead Lake in the 1880s, prompting area residents to name the place “Lambert’s Landing.”

It is said that most of the original settlers were on good terms with the tribes, and many men married native women. Nearly 200 people lived in the area at the turn of the century.

After a post office was scheduled for construction in 1898, the settlement was named after David Polson, an area rancher originally from Connecticut. Polson, who married a Nez Perce woman, was popular with the Flathead natives and would play his fiddle at powwows.

In 1909, after forcing the tribe to cede land for settlement, the government allowed Indian families a first pick of land allotments; 2,460 participated, but many refused, angered by the government’s breach of promise. The surplus land went into a settlement lottery. Between July 15 and Aug. 5 of that same year, 81,363 people registered for the drawings in Kalispell and Missoula. Two lotteries and one “gun and gallop” land claim later, an influx of outsiders had claimed vast portions of the reservation as their own. Although bad weather and crop failure caused many of these initial settlers to leave, a steady stream arrived to take their place.

On April 5, 1910, Polson was officially incorporated. By Sept. 1, the town boasted 1,000 people. A creamery, flour mill and Ford Model T dealership quickly opened to service the new “city.”

In an era before the railroad or a road system had reached Flathead Lake, steamboats were the main form of transportation. In the early 1880s, before a steam engine was shipped to the lake, a boat took one week to travel the lake’s length. When the steam engine finally arrived in 1885, a round-trip of the lake was made every two days.

During these early years, the Polson Bay became choked with ice each winter. A barge named “The Big Fork” was used to break paths, but oftentimes failed. Accordingly, Polson merchants carried enough stock to last through the winters to avoid exorbitant overland fees.

However, snow wasn’t always regulated to the winter months. A June snowstorm in 1916 left eight inches of snow on the ground.

The 1917 arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad Railway in Polson, coupled with the rise of the automobile, killed the steamboat industry

In 1923, the Montana Legislature created Lake County and after a heated contest, Polson beat out Ronan to host the county seat. A high school was built in 1929, followed by the county courthouse in late 1935.

When the first unit of the Kerr Dam was completed in 1938, Polson celebrated with a buffalo barbecue and pow wow dances.

In February 1943, a B-17 bomber, perilously low on fuel, landed at the Polson airport, having mistaken it for Idaho. The Norden bombsight, a closely-guarded secret of World War II, was onboard the flight and kept overnight in the Security State Bank’s vault. Children skipped school to watch the plane take off a runway that had been freshly lengthened by removing several fences.

For more information about Polson Centennial events, contact the Polson Flathead Historical Museum at (406) 883-3049 or visit www.polsonflatheadmuseum.org.