Johnson/Benkelman House

By Beacon Staff

In 1898, the area of the Flathead Indian Reservation known as “Lambert’s Landing” became known as “Polson” after the new post office was named after David Polson, a prominent rancher in the area.

Back then the area was little more than a post office, stagecoach stop and a port of call for steam ships. Only about 200 people lived in the area – and one of them chose to build a stately home at 1401 Seventh St. E., which has long since been a local landmark.

The home was built by John Adolf Johnson (1874-1960), better known as J.A. Johnson, in common practice of the times. Johnson was a prominent man about town and a director of the chamber of commerce. He was a partner in the Security State Bank, which opened on March 26, 1910 – 10 days before the city of Polson was incorporated. Johnson’s attendance at civic meetings and social events, including “bridge whilst dinner,” was often noted in newspapers throughout his day.

Johnson left his mark on the home itself, and the grounds as well. While helping to develop the area, he helped distribute cherry and other orchard trees to ranchers throughout the county (which was a novel idea at the time). His appreciation of trees may account for the chestnut, elm and maple trees on the property, which once extended along a road abandoned for irrigation Canal B (first surveyed in 1908).

In 1954, Johnson sold the home and property for $18,000 to Ward Benkelman, a prominent physician in the area. Benkelman lived there with his wife Mary and their children.

Their son Guy Benkelman recalled how his younger brother Cody was actually named after the wallpaper. Guy explained, “we three older boys, Clay, Barney, and I, got to name our younger brother. We were trying to think of a name, staring at the walls in the room upstairs. The wallpaper had a western motif with Wild Bill Cody on it and that’s how he got his name – after the Wild Bill Cody pictures on our walls.”

Guy also spoke about the mystery of the first garage on the property. His father was smoking salmon in the garage. Guy recalled how “after smoking the fish for so many days, the heat just melted that little ‘Chief Smoker’ – and took the rest of the place with it.”

Mysteriously, the fire department just stood around with his dad and watched it burn. The garage was later rebuilt and the home stayed in the Benkelman family until 1982.

As for the home itself, overall, its architectural style is a mix of Greek Revival, Craftsman and genuine Victorian-era appointments as well.

Inside, many original details remain, including the “leaded glass” and ornate American Radiator Co. steam radiators that were likely installed in the 1910s. Although no longer fired by coal, they are still a striking reminder of technology from more than a century ago – and the forgotten know-how of “bleeding” a radiator with a “radiator key.”

On the outside, the columns at the front of the home invoke the Greek Revival style (even though they are fashioned in a more Craftsman style)– and the ideals of the time.

The home was built during the Gilded Age, a time when a home was considered a sanctuary – a place to seek refuge from the populace and society. So the columns were meant to be attractive – and provide a buffer from the outside world as well.
Yet ironically, from the outside, this home still reminds us of the ideals, architecture and times long since past.

JC Chaix is a writer and certified home inspector and appreciates history, art and architecture.

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