Kehoe’s Agate Shop

1020 Hold Drive, Bigfork

By Jaix Chaix

Kehoe’s Agate Shop marks a place where the former town of Holt once stood along a bend in the Flathead River – a place where landmarks and legends of the Flathead Valley intersect.

The shop at 1020 Holt Drive has been owned and operated by the Kehoe family since 1932. Some things haven’t changed much over the years. The plain, gabled front speaks quietly of a modest exterior. And save for the light fixture atop the front, a bank of “dairy barn windows,” and a peculiar arched entranceway, there’s perhaps not much of else of historical mention.

But there’s far more to it than that.

The frame of the building, its very wall and floorboards, are steeped in history – nautical history – as they are from the steamboat Helena.

The Helena was built in 1915 by James Kehoe Sr. He built the ship with timber harvested in the woods around Bigfork. The steamship’s engine was the very demonstration model exhibited at the World’s Fair at Chicago in 1892. After the fair, the engine was put in service on a fireboat, which sank fighting a fire at a grain elevator along the Chicago River. Kehoe salvaged the engine, shipped it Kalispell, and used it to power the Helena.

Kehoe built the Helena, and piloted it as well. The Helena plied the waters of the Flathead for years, and was notably the only steamer with a reinforced hull strong enough to break through the thick, river ice during the winter.

The Helena’s home port was Holt, a once-bustling town and the earliest community in the valley along the east shore of the river. Holt was formerly known as “Lee’s Landing,” after pioneer Alvin Lee. But it was later re-named after Lee’s successor, Joe Holt, who operated the Holt Saloon (licensed in 1891) and the Holt ferry (which operated from the late 1880s until the 1940s).

The Helena was one of several steamboats that traveled along the Flathead River during the 1890s through the 1920s. Some were also named after cities, such as the Demersville and The City of Polson (others held the names of women, such as the Cassie D., the Eva B., the Lillian, the Mary Ann, the Mary Lou, and the Pocahontas.)

Much like the agate shop itself, the Helena was passed down through generations of the Kehoe family. Kehoe Sr. built the Helena – and his son James “Jack” Kehoe Jr. – dismantled it.

By the 1930s, roads made steamboats practically obsolete. So, much in common with men of wisdom, practicality and ingenuity, Jack took apart his father’s boat to build the agate shop. The Helena’s beams and planks became the frame, floors and walls of the shop. Even the nails were painstakingly salvaged and re-used (it was the era of the Great Depression, after all).

The remains of the keel and hull rest on the bottom of river, near the pilings where the Holt Bridge once stood. The setting serves as an eerie reminder of the early life and times along the Flathead River. Fortunately, other parts of the steamer Helena – including the original prop, capstan, and pilot house – are on display, next to Kehoe’s Agate Shop.

Inside the shop itself, Leslie Kehoe minds the shelves, which are lined with agates, gems, artifacts, fossils, and other curiosities, including arrowheads from centuries ago, a mammoth tusk dating back several ice ages, and mollusks that go back a bit further, some 85 million years or so – just in case a rich family legacy and local history aren’t enough to pique your curiosity and prompt a visit back in time.