A Flathead Founding Family

Dating back to Everit L. Sliter’s platting of Bigfork in 1902, the Sliters have been influential community leaders, with a new generation now carrying the baton of civic engagement and business leadership into the future

By Myers Reece | Photography by Greg Lindstrom

In the 1990s, after signs for the National Register of Historic Places were erected in front of notable Kalispell homes, Nikki Sliter was walking her dogs when she bumped into the “Sliter House.” This mystery home bearing her family name was only a few blocks from her own historic abode, the Agather House, where she still lives with her husband, Everit, and where they raised their children.

Upon reporting the discovery to her family, confusion abounded: It said Sliter, as in us? Nobody had heard of it. Turns out the house once belonged to the earliest Sliter, beginning in 1905, but had drifted out of memory, adding yet another footnote to the legacy of one of the Flathead Valley’s founding families, whose imprint is so broad that a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood can reveal a window into a region’s origin story.

Today, a city park, lumber yards and hardware stores in three towns, a respected accounting firm, and a Sixth Avenue East home all bear the Sliter name, while generations of Sliters have played prominent civic roles on numerous boards and councils. This sprawling family tree has roots dating back to the founder of Bigfork on one side and the J. Neils Lumber Company on the other, with branches that trace the valley’s evolution from the turn of the 20th century.

Everit L. Sliter arrived in Montana from his native Michigan in the late 1880s to work for the Montana Central Railroad in Helena while also operating a cigar store. He visited the north end of Flathead Lake on a hunting and fishing trip. After filling the bottom of a canoe with cutthroat trout, Sliter decided a man could do worse than pristine water and a fish-filled belly. He purchased 139 acres from William Ramsdell for $1,380 and continued building his real estate portfolio in the ensuing years.

Early on, Sliter earned money by splitting wood for fence posts and spent a winter living in close quarters with his dog, where the two survived by eating anywhere between 17 and 26 deer that Sliter had harvested, depending on the account. Then in 1892, he married Lizzie Osborn and planted an orchard of 500 trees, a number that later increased to 4,000, including 1,500 fruit-bearing apple, plum, cherry, and pear trees.

Sliter built a 15-room hotel and general store and convinced the federal government to establish a post office, paving the way for a townsite. In 1902, he filed a plat at the Flathead County Courthouse in Kalispell for 11 blocks and 94 lots, and Bigfork was born. The newly minted town founder also served as Bigfork’s first postmaster.

In 1905, Sliter bought the Kalispell home now known as the “Sliter House” from Joseph Horn, who was part owner of the Kalispell Mercantile Company. Horn and Sliter essentially switched lives, with Sliter moving into Horn’s home and Horn taking over Sliter’s general store, hotel and postmaster role in Bigfork. Sliter ran a successful real estate enterprise from the Sixth Avenue East house.

Everit and Lizzie had three daughters, Hazel, Veda and Blenn, and one boy, Everit L. Sliter II. Hazel died as a young girl. Everit Jr. attended Flathead High School, and in his 1925 senior yearbook, he listed his “ambition” as “Coolidge’s job.” Despite this grand presidential ambition, the yearbook listed his “ultimate destiny” as “soda jerker.”

Whatever one makes of the yearbook predictions, which were perhaps tongue in cheek, the younger Everit quickly proved he would be a hard worker in whichever field he sought. Immediately after graduating high school, he got a job at Horn & Smith General Merchandise in Somers, then purchased an interest in the company and later took it over. Around this time, Everit and Lizzie moved to warmer weather in California.

Everit Jr. married Margaret Wanda Agather, who hailed from the Neils lineage of J. Neils Lumber Company, a turn-of-the-20th-century Minnesota timber giant that had expanded its empire to Northwest Montana. The couple had three boys — Neils or “Joe,” Everit and Tom — and operated a farm in Lower Valley in addition to running the Somers mercantile.

Everit Jr. was known around the valley, and especially in his beloved Somers, as a man who would do anything to help a neighbor. And in Somers, everybody was a neighbor. When Everit had to provide an address to register to sell firearms at his store, he didn’t have a number to offer, just a location: “It’s on the left side of the street.”

In the 1950s, the family moved to Kalispell into the historic Agather House of Margaret’s namesake. Everit showed up at a Somers polling station to vote but was turned away because he no longer lived in the district.

“It broke his heart,” his son Everit recalls. “He loved Somers.”

Joe, Everit and Tom worked on the farm as boys, and Everit, the middle child, decided at a young age that he would follow his dad’s agricultural footsteps.

“I planned to be a farmer,” Everit said. “But my dad talked me out of it. He said, ‘Get a day job.’”

So Everit left the valley to earn a business degree from University of Montana and then returned to take an accounting internship in 1960 under Henry Jordahl in Kalispell. He became a partner in 1965, the same year he married Nikki, and remained with the company for a half-century until his recent retirement, steadily growing Jordahl & Sliter’s reputation as a widely respected certified public accounting firm. As the company’s website notes, “Our firm is built on the principles Everit exhibited every day of his extraordinary career.”

As a young man, Joe teamed up with his dad at the family business in Somers, which was still selling general merchandise but increasingly offering building supplies. The mercantile moved to a more central location on Somers’ primary street, leaving behind two white buildings that still sit empty and dilapidated just outside of downtown. Today, Sliters Lumber & Building Supply remains in the same spot, an anomaly among lumber yards, which are typically on industrial strips, not Main Streets.

Tom, who was younger than Joe by 12 years and Everit by eight, studied geography and math at Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he met his wife Ralene. After graduating, he worked as a systems engineer for IBM in Chicago and served in the U.S. Army National Guard, where he used his computer expertise to automate his unit’s payroll.

In 1979, Tom and Ralene moved to the Flathead Valley, where Tom worked alongside his father and Joe at Sliters Lumber & Building Supply, which operated both the Somers store and a Bigfork location. Tom computerized the company’s records.

After their father passed away in 1982, Joe and Tom ran the business until Joe’s death in 1987. Tom then assumed control, a promotion that haunted him.

“My dad always said he would have given anything to have his brother back,” says Tom’s son and current president of Sliters Lumber & Building Supply, Andrew.

But Tom was determined to honor and build upon his brother and father’s legacy, and he ushered Sliters Lumber into a modern era that saw the opening of a third location in Lakeside and the housing boom of the early to mid 2000s. All the while, the title on his business card was “owner-janitor.”

Though Tom and Everit ran separate companies, Everit helped out with the lumber and hardware store’s bookkeeping, and the two brothers remained close. They also both left indelible marks on their communities, which Tom did until the day he died in 2016 at age 69 and Everit continues to do in retirement.

Everit was a Rotarian for 44 years and helped found the Conrad Mansion Museum Board of Directors. He also served on the Kalispell City Council, including two years as president; was chairman of the State Board of Accountancy and president of the Montana Society of CPAs; spent 20 years as president of the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts and was instrumental in fundraising and building the current theater; and was active in the Kalispell Regional Healthcare Foundation and University of Montana Foundation. He also retired as chairman of Glacier Bancorp’s board of directors in 2015.

Tom received numerous honors from building associations and chambers of commerce and was active at Trinity Lutheran Church, including serving as chairman of Trinity Lutheran’s school board. Other causes dear to his heart included the Somers Company Town Project and Sliters Endowed Scholarship for the Industrial Arts at FVCC.

From left: Everit, Nikki, Jennifer and Justin, pictured outside the Agather House, which has been in the Sliter family for decades.

Nikki Sliter, Everit’s wife, remembers passing the Agather House on Fifth Avenue East while walking to school as a young girl and telling herself, “Someday, I’m going to live there.” Lo and behold, a little girl’s dream became reality when she grew up to marry Everit and the couple moved into the Agather House.

Through the years, Nikki has turned the Agather House into perhaps the best-known Kalispell home during the holidays, and certainly the most famous at Halloween. She spends long days decorating for Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day, and in recent years she has found a helpful accomplice in daughter-in-law Jennifer Sliter, the wife of her son Justin, who is a partner at Jordahl & Sliter.

Under Nikki’s decorative direction, the Agather House is a landmark destination for trick-or-treaters, whose numbers annually top 2,000. After the barrage of candy and costumes ends, Nikki stores the festive adornments in various rooms on the home’s third floor, which used to be Justin’s stomping ground but is now vacant. Nikki likes to tell visitors, “This is the closet where we keep our skeletons.”

Nikki’s community service extends beyond warming kids’ hearts. Over the years, she has volunteered for Flathead Electric Cooperative, Kalispell Regional Healthcare and Hockaday Museum of Art. And many years ago, she grew disenchanted with the landscaping at Bigfork Summer Playhouse and signed on as unpaid gardener. She did it for two decades.

“Together, they’re the best community volunteers you can find,” Justin says of his parents.

Everit and Nikki’s oldest son, Paul Sliter, was a political wunderkind in the 1990s who served as an intern and staffer for former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns while still in college, got elected as a Republican into the Montana House of Representative at age 25 and then rose through the ranks to become House Majority Leader. He died in a car accident near Helena in 2001 at 32 years old.

“He got a lot of life lived in the time he had,” Nikki says.

Tom and Ralene also raised their four children in Kalispell. The kids — Andrea, Laura, Andrew, and Linda — all grew up in the family business. Andrew recalls as a boy sorting documents, picking up nails and stocking the soda machine at Sliters Lumber & Building Supply.

Like her husband, Ralene worked for IBM but later committed herself full-time to motherly and civic duties in Indiana, Illinois and finally Kalispell, where she volunteered for a number of charities and organizations. Her obituary notes that she “was the glue that held the family together.”

Rather than pressure the kids to enter into the family business, Tom did the opposite, encouraging them to leave the valley and develop their own talents and philosophies. Then, if they wanted to come back, they would be doing so with knowledge of opportunities that existed elsewhere and skills that could help the company, as Tom himself had done with his computer experience.

Andrew earned a business degree from Fort Lewis College in Colorado and then worked for five years in Denver as a CPA. When he returned to the company 11 years ago, he indeed brought his own business expertise, which was quickly put to the test when the recession hit. As chief financial officer, Andrew worked alongside his father to guide the company through the downturn.

“I credit Andrew’s business acumen with the company’s ability to handle the recession without layoffs, and not only that, but to grow and thrive,” sister Andrea Sliter Goudge says.

Goudge would know about business acumen. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business and master’s in accounting from University of Montana, she embarked on a career in forest products and homebuilding in Oregon, Washington and Arizona, where she was vice president and controller for Maracay Homes and was featured in a regional publication of “Who’s Who” in the Phoenix real estate market. She joined Sliters Lumber as CFO earlier this year in the wake of her father’s death, and Andrew moved up to president.

Sisters Laura and Linda live in Los Angeles and Missoula, respectively. Joe and Ruth’s daughters — SuAnn, Bobbi and Jan — all live in the Flathead, while Justin is the lone remaining child of Everit and Nikki.

Andrew says his family’s colorful history, which includes diverse business endeavors that range from lumber to accounting, as well as a pioneering spirit and a tradition of outside-the-box thinking, continues to propel and inspire his business.

“All of those flavors tend to steep down into what we are today,” he says.

Most of all, Andrew credits the company’s longevity and success to the community and employees, some of whom have been at Sliters for decades, including one for 50 years.

“We feel a tremendous honor and sense of responsibility to our customers, employees and community to make sure this is successful into the future,” he says.

For Everit Sliter, who has never been one to rest, retirement is a relative term. He and Nikki split their time between the Agather House and a lake home in Bigfork, enjoying a more deliberate pace of life, yet they still serve on boards and volunteer their time in various ways, including Everit’s pro bono accounting work for a number of local nonprofits. They are further building upon a family legacy of community involvement and influence that is already immeasurable.

The Sliter children have also continued the tradition of civic participation. Justin is chairman of the FVCC Foundation board, among other volunteer titles, while Andrew is president of the Flathead Building Association and has served on the United Way executive committee.

The old Sliter acreage in Lower Valley is still actively farmed by Miles Passmore. While there might not be a National Register of Historic Places sign marking the property, the Sliter name is as deeply rooted in that fertile soil as it is in the green grass of Bigfork’s Sliter Park, a social square that is aptly dedicated to the public, as its namesakes would want. Neither death nor generational turnover can diminish the Sliters’ impact; indeed, it’s as permanent as the land itself.

Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the fall edition for free on newsstands across the valley. Or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.

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