In 100 years, ownership of the Polebridge Mercantile has changed hands 10 times, according to records cobbled together by historians and hardscrabble locals, with each set of proprietors playing their own unique role in shaping the store, the community and the far-flung, off-the-grid landscape.
And yet the owners of this lone outpost of civilization along the remote North Fork of the Flathead River have not traditionally considered themselves owners, instead embracing the cozier denomination of “caretaker,” a term of endearment that sets the “Merc” apart from the workaday grind of quotidian life, distinguishing it from the modern trappings and clutter that has even crept into a scantly populated place like Montana.
Time passes slowly here, to be sure, but even the Merc must endure change.
It seems appropriate, then, that just as the store’s stewards fire up the generator and warm the ovens in preparation for its centennial season, the boxy building’s iconic red-and-white façade cast in star-spangled relief against the stunning blue sky that swaddles the west side of Glacier National Park, the Polebridge Mercantile is also ushering in a new caretaker who intends to set the beloved bazaar on course for another century.
But first, he has to learn to flip the sticky buns.
“That was your first flip,” Stuart Reiswig told Will Hammerquist on a recent May morning, moments after the Merc’s new caretaker slammed a pan of sticky buns onto the bakery counter, the syrupy fusion of brown sugar and cinnamon commingling with the colossal sweet rolls, his anointment official. “How did it feel?”
“I think I’m getting the hang of this,” Hammerquist said.
And get the hang of it he must.
In purchasing the Polebridge Mercantile from Reiswig and Flannery Coats, who together bought it from Dan and Debbie Kaufman in 2009, Hammerquist is investing in more than just a bakery and general store.
He’s committing to a place and a lifestyle that can be inhospitable, unforgiving and even downright hostile; in turn, it is a place that will rejuvenate, recharge and even offer revelations – the lulling quiet of a bright summer morning, the kaleidoscopic star-scape on a moonless winter night, the northern lights flickering across the mantel of sky, the crystalline clarity of the North Fork’s waters bubbling south.
Even though the community is a place of divisive politics – North Fork-ers clash over land use and endangered species, and about whether to pave the wash-boarded old road – everyone who lives here loves the place, which becomes the common denominator.
“I’ve definitely always known this is a special place,” Hammerquist said. “The more time you spend up here, the more that becomes clear.”
Polebridge is tucked along the western edge of Glacier National Park, just short of the Canadian border, in the remote North Fork Valley. The Merc, which opened for the season May 1 for its 100th year, is a perennial re-animator of the backwoods enclave that is home to a small handful of year-round residents, who are literally outnumbered by endangered species.
There is no cell phone service and no electricity – the power lines stop 20 miles down the rutted, pockmarked road – and the nearest town of Columbia Falls is 35 miles to the south.
Visitors who brave the dusty stretch of Montana 486, known simply as the North Fork Road, are rewarded with striking views of the park and an array of baked goodies – huckleberry bear claws, cinnamon rolls, macaroons, microbrew, coffee, fresh-baked bread and pocket sandwiches – while the shelves of the Merc are lined with practical wares like gauze and parachute cord, power steering fluid and Spam, making it a one-stop resupply shop.
It is a place steeped in a history older than the name “Polebridge,” and the Merc’s “General Mercantile Historic District” is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
William L. “Bill” Adair built the Merc back in 1914, just four years after Glacier Park became a park. He fished, using only one fly (the Coachman), and drank and grew king-sized cabbages while his wife (and later, after she died, a second wife) ran the store and lived in their homestead cabin, which is now the Northern Lights Saloon.
He planted the only elm tree in the North Fork, which still shades patrons of the neighboring saloon, and his transplanted hop vines continue to creep up the saloon wall.
The Merc’s interior still bears the log walls that Adair hand-hewed with a broadax so he could adorn them with wallpaper, and the old glass-cylinder gas pump, which used a pump-and-gravity system to fuel vehicles, remains on the complex.
The Mercantile was originally known as Adair’s, while Polebridge was the store and post office a half-mile north, toward the Glacier National Park entrance.
That second store was owned and operated by another homesteader, Ben Hensen Sr., who opened his store in the 1920s because he thought Adair’s prices were exorbitant. When Hensen was awarded the post office contract, his wife May submitted the name Polebridge, which was accepted.
North Fork resident and historian Lois Walker said the Hensens closed the store in 1936 due to the Depression, and the post office moved to Adair’s, where it remained until Dan Kaufman closed it in 2001 after the Anthrax scare following 9/11. The couple had to walk through the post office to reach their living quarters, and with a young son, the pay was insignificant compared to their son’s welfare.
The Adairs operated the store until just after World War II when Ben and Annette Rover took over.
A brief history of the Merc that hangs in the Northern Lights Saloon quotes an excerpt from former Glacier National Park ranger Norton Pearl, offering some insight into Adair’s colorful personality: “Thurs Feb 13. Had a fine feed at Adairs for supper … Had quite a chat all the way along with Bill Adair I like him … Fri Feb 14. Didn’t get up very early but had a fine breakfast bot a pair of rubbers and sox and started for Belton. Billy Adairs is some fine place to stop.”
And while Kaufman’s decision rankled locals who relied on the post office, his contribution as a third-generation baker makes up for it. Until 1994, the Merc didn’t feature a bakery, which today serves as its most popular function.
“Dan Kaufman was an amazing baker and all of his knowledge is still in the bakery, so in that sense we are just carrying out tradition,” Hammerquist said.
When Coats and Reiswig purchased the Merc, Kaufman stayed on for the summer to mentor them, and Coats in turn taught her brother, Jake Coats, and friend, Lauren Amato, who are both baking again this summer.
Reiswig is staying on as a baker and operations manager, as are veteran bakers Dan Koestler and Julie Nelson, all of whose techniques were passed down by Kaufman.
Coats and Reiswig also installed a new septic system and solar panel arrays, and made the building more energy efficient.
“Their improvements over the past five years were tremendous,” Hammerquist said of the most recent stewards. “They made the investment and that’s going to help give it another 100 years.”
Longtime resident George McFarland’s family purchased their property on Big Prairie within the boundaries of Glacier National Park in 1942, and his first recollections on the North Fork were as a teenager in the mid-40s. He remembers many of the original homesteaders and the square dances at the McFarland Ranch, and recalls meeting Adair. The Mercantile was then, as it is today, a community center and a grocer of last resort.
A Kalispell native, Hammerquist has intimate ties to the region, and previously worked as the Glacier field office manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
He’s working on an interpretive nature trail that he hopes to connect to the river and inform visitors about the region’s history and the proposed expansion of the Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada.
“So many people know about the uniqueness of the bakery but not about the uniqueness of the transboundary valley,” he said. “People understand it intuitively, but if you teach them it empowers them.”
Hammerquist acknowledges that all of the Merc’s owners and caretakers have made contributions to the business and the cloistered community, and that it requires a person of a certain stripe, and with a certain degree of mettle, to run the store.
Still, he insists that it’s not all about who owns it.
“It’s about the bakery and the place,” he said. “You’re trying to match your service to the scenery, and you’re only as good as your last bear claw.”
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