Former Lake McDonald Employees Prepare for Reunion

Workers from the mid 1960s and early 1970s will gather in Whitefish in September

By Justin Franz
People lounge and walk through the lobby of the Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park. Beacon File Photo

Sandy Chillstrom had been on the job for just three weeks when she was promoted. It was 1966, and the Minnesota native had been hired as a food server at the employee cafeteria at Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park. It was in the cafeteria that her supervisor noticed she had a special skill: Chillstrom could crack an egg with one hand.

Amazed by this seemingly simple ability, the supervisor quickly promoted Chillstrom to baker’s assistant, replacing another college student who was getting her degree in home economics but couldn’t crack eggs as quickly. Chillstrom spent the next two summers making baked goods that were sold to employees and visitors.

“Cracking an egg with one hand is a skill that’ll take you places,” Chillstrom says.

Fifty-one years after Chillstrom discovered the special skill, she and about 75 other former Lake McDonald Lodge employees from the 1960s and 1970s are gathering in Whitefish for a special reunion on Sept. 9-12.

Chillstrom’s cousin had worked in the park previously and planted the seed for her own wilderness adventures, which began almost as soon as Chillstrom got off the train in West Glacier, where she was greeted by a snowstorm on her first day. Chillstrom recalls huddling with other employees around the big fireplace in the lodge’s lobby to stay warm.

At the time, lodge employees worked six days a week. Those in food service worked almost every meal. On their days off, Chillstrom and her colleagues would often go hiking. None of the employees were allowed to have cars, so it was common for them to hitchhike with a sign that stated “Glacier Park Employee.”

“Even though we were working, it really felt like one big vacation,” said TJ Tjernlund, who started working as a dishwasher at the lodge when he was 16, and then as a busboy and waiter from 1966 to 1969. “For a lot of us, it was the first time we had been away from home, so it was a life-changing experience.”

Even though they only spent a few months together, Tjernlund said important friendships were formed at Lake McDonald Lodge. But while Tjernlund stayed in touch with a few people, he lost contact with many more. A few years ago, he started tracking down a few memorable coworkers, and “it just mushroomed from there,” he said.

Since then, Tjernlund has contacted more than 100 people who worked at the lodge from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s. About two years ago, he and some other former employees decided it was time for a reunion. So in late 2016, a small group of them met at his home in Arizona to start planning.

“Within a few minutes, it was as if we had never left each other,” Tjernlund said. “We had all gone off and lived our own lives over the past 50 years, but with these people it suddenly felt like the 1960s again.”

The reunion in September will feature a banquet, a tour of the lodge, a boat ride on Lake McDonald and, most importantly, plenty of time to catch up and remember old times.

Former employees from the mid 1960s through the early 1970s who are interested in attending the reunion should email Sandy Chillstrom at [email protected] or TJ Tjernlund at [email protected] for more information.