A Farmers’ Market with Big Ambitions

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Micheal Medlin gazed out from underneath a 4,000-square-foot event tent and pointed to a huge sign announcing the location of the “Midway Swap Meet & Farmers Market.”

“They say it’s the biggest private sign in Montana,” Medlin said.

Whether the sign is actually the biggest in the state or not, the point is clear. Everything about the Midway Swap Meet is bigger than the average farmers’ market – the tent, the stage and, especially, the ambitions.

And with its prime location at the Midway Drive-In movie theater at the intersection of Montana Highway 40 and U.S. Highway 2 west of Columbia Falls, Medlin believes the heavy traffic flow heading to Glacier National Park will bring in the tourism dollars to achieve those ambitions.

“We have more than 2 million people going to Glacier Park but nobody’s stopping,” Medlin said. “It’s all urban sprawl out here. If we could somehow locally put out a net and catch even 20 percent of those people, have some commerce here, that’s a lot of money for the local economy.

“This is an opportunity for locals to capture some of that traffic – we’re putting the net out.”

The Midway Swap Meet & Farmers Market will be held every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., beginning June 4 and running through August, though co-organizer Marco Forcone said it could go longer.

“Possibly September too,” Forcone said. “Weather permitting, we have the option of having it for another month.”

While the weekly gathering will include many of the same produce vendors typical of the region’s farmers markets, the swap meet component of the event means that a wide range of other booths will also be set up.

“Folks can sell everything from crafts to car parts,” Medlin said, adding that nonprofits are encouraged to come as well.

As of last week, Medlin had been in discussions with 170 vendors with 90 confirmed and a lot more going through the final steps of confirmation. Medlin has spoken with vendors across the Flathead Valley and well beyond, in Canada, the Swan Valley, Eureka and elsewhere.

There will be 200 booths set up, each 10 by 15 feet, which Medlin said is larger than the average farmers market booth and can be shared if vendors choose. Vendors pay $30 a day, or $50 per weekend, for a booth.

While capturing tourism dollars is one goal, Medlin also believes the weekly event will be a popular hangout for locals who want to listen to live music outdoors and eat good food.

Below the large sign covering the former Midway Drive-In theater screen, Yim-Q Ngo walks back from her vehicle huddled under a shirt protecting her from the falling rain.

Great Northern Brewing Company is sponsoring a 32 by 24 foot stage located underneath the movie screen, which is currently covered by the large sign advertising the event. The brewing company is also setting up a beer garden located by the food court, which Medlin said will offer a diverse selection of foods. Vendors such as Piggyback Barbeque and Island Noodles have already signed on for the entire summer, he said.

In the event of poor weather, people can take shelter under the 4,000-square-foot tent, with the food court and beer garden at their fingertips. There will also be kids activities. General admission is $1.

Medlin and Forcone are members of the band HumanLab, which was previously based out of Orange County, Calif., and has now found a home in the North Fork of the Flathead. One of the band members, Miriam Folk, is from Polebridge.

Medlin is trying to use his extensive network of connections in the music industry to bring in bands that would otherwise not consider the trip up to the Flathead. Household names like Old Crow Medicine Show are on Medlin’s radar, as well as groups HumanLab has played shows with such as Eek-A-Mouse and Steel Pulse.

“I’d like to bring them up here,” Medlin said.

One special event already in the works is a bluegrass festival that Medlin said will feature a lineup of quality bands. There will be other special events throughout the summer, including a chili cook-off, cherry festival and others.

An array of local bands will play, with Barnyard Riot kicking off the first weekend. HumanLab, Medlin said, will be the “house band.”

“There’s not a lot of places to see outside entertainment here,” Medlin said.

Based on his experiences organizing similar events in Orange County, Medlin believes the swap meet and farmers’ market format will work well in the Flathead.

“I’m just following the blueprint and offering it,” Medlin said. “We’ve seen the need here and so far people have been super excited.”

Medlin and Forcone had been mulling the swap meet idea when Medlin had an epiphany while driving past Midway Drive-In.

“How do we create business here?” Medlin said. “I drove past this location and it came to me.”

Not only is Midway Drive-In the perfect location because of its visibility, Medlin said, it also has logistical and historical qualities. It is a large, open space, and the gas station located kitty corner from Midway has given approval for R.V. and overflow parking, Medlin said.

Midway’s owner, Signature Theaters, has “been great” in working with the organizers and leasing out the space, Medlin said. Medlin hopes to continue Midway’s historical role as a cornerstone of the community.

“This has been a good-time venue since 1952,” he said. “It’s a landmark destination.”

For more information, including how to become a vendor, call Medlin at (406) 863-9741.