History can often be peculiar. This is especially true if you consider how one of the biggest, oldest, and largest local landmarks in the Flathead Valley is often overlooked. Nonetheless, the KM Building, formerly the Kalispell Mercantile Building, at 200 First Ave. E. in Kalispell remains an historical treasure in so many ways.
Truth be told, the KM Building is actually a block-long monolith of several buildings, connected to one another from about 1892 through 1910. In former days, each “building” served a different purpose. One stored and sold general merchandise, another hardware, another groceries, etc.
The building also played an important role in early Flathead County and Kalispell history. When Flathead County was founded in 1893, officials soon realized they had a county, but didn’t have office space. So for many years, county offices, the courtroom, and Kalispell City Hall were located inside the KM Building, as the fine hardwood finishing and other details on the top floor still remind us — thanks to the ever-so-thoughtful preservation of the building’s current owners, Bill and Jana Goodman.
The Goodmans bought the KM Building in 1997 and have since painstakingly restored the building inside and out. For example, they removed the “marblecrete” exterior installed in 1965 to expose the original brick façade. And whether by maintaining the original integrity of the building, or restoring historic window displays (such as those made by Hugh Hockaday), the Goodmans are keeping important Flathead heritage alive and well.
Their work seems like an effortless labor of love — and daunting challenge — just the same, considering the history of the place. Even the basement reveals history. For example, the oldest, still-working furnace in Montana lies below. And for those not-so-mechanically enthralled, there are markings of decades-old graffiti, including the scribblings of former high school “spud sorters,” who left their marks upon the walls in between sorting potatoes and produce. Even the former basement chicken coop (still much in its original form) harkens to a time when “fresh, local food” had a much bolder meaning. And a sugar cane caper in the 1930s (a burglary by the truckload) is just one of many peculiar happenings at the place.
Indeed, from top to bottom, the KM Building is uniquely filled with history, as few buildings can boast of an historic courtroom — and chicken coop — much the same. And the history of the Kalispell Mercantile spans the 1880s through the 1980s, when the business finally ceased operations. The Kalispell Mercantile was a branch of the Missoula Mercantile, which was originally established under a tent by Telesphore Jacques DeMers, the co-founder of the bygone town of Demersville (after the merchants at nearby Ashley snubbed him).
And quite literally, the legacy of the KM Building pervades the Flathead Valley and beyond. There are numerous homes throughout the Flathead that still have hardware, furnishings, or other items once sold and bought at the Kalispell Mercantile. And more than a few antiques that turn up in shops from Bellingham to Billings to Bismark can be traced to Kalispell Mercantile origins.
So, if you haven’t been to the KM Building in awhile, it’s well worth visiting. For even just a walk through the halls offers a history lesson, as the enormous old-time photos on the walls tell many often-forgotten stories of the past. And with more than 25 businesses and offices inside, you’ll likely discover shops or services you didn’t even know were there – much like the impressive history of the KM Building itself.
Jaix Chaix is a columnist and author of Flathead Valley Landmarks and other local history books that are available for sale at the Flathead Beacon at 17 Main St. in Kalispell.
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