Creating a Sense of Place

Artists collaborate for two years to write, organize, film, and archive the stories that make up the history of Bigfork

By Molly Priddy
Looking south on Electric Avenue in Bigfork during Fourth of July parade festivities in 1924. Courtesy Central School Museum Archives

When it comes to creating a sense of place, collaborators Tabby Ivy, Denny Kellogg and Ed Gillenwater have discovered two key factors: one, the character of the physical place itself, and two, the stories and lives of the people who call it home.

Who lives there and why do they stay? Why did they go there in the first place? How does the cyclical nature of community influence the future?

These are among the questions the trio hopes to tackle in their upcoming documentary, book and exhibition called “Bigfork, A Montana Story,” a project years in the making.

The documentary itself will premiere at the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 3, with an opening reception for the related exhibition at the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center on Oct. 27. That exhibit will be shown until Nov. 17.

The narrative of the film and the book follows Bigfork’s evolution in becoming what the project collaborators call “one of the last best places in Montana.” It begins with the area’s geological origins, discusses the first native people to inhabit the land, and then explores the ensuing traders, trappers, early pioneers, and entrepreneurs who made their way to the village.

Bigfork’s geography is a major character, because of the town’s location between where the Flathead and Swan rivers empty into the neighboring Flathead Lake, all with a mountain backdrop.

“If you look at where it is between the two rivers, that area just geographically was a very hard area to get to,” Ivy, who wrote the book for the project, said. “It’s been able to kind of maintain its character because of where it sits in the valley.”

Due to this challenging terrain, Bigfork was one of the last areas in the Flathead to be permanently settled by pioneers. This character still attracts adventurers and romantics of all sorts.

“People still come to Bigfork and think they’re discovering the frontier,” Kellogg said in an interview last week. “There’s a very strong sense of independence, but also a strong sense of community.”

Kellogg serves as the “brain vault” for the project, having studied Bigfork history and collected bits and pieces about the village for the last 40 years.

“You sit down with (Kellogg) in his archives and he starts telling you these stories,” Gillenwater, the photographer and writer on the project, said.

Along with memorabilia and hundreds of historic photos and news articles, the documentary includes interviews with members of some of the first founding families in Bigfork.

“When you do a story about a community, it’s really about individual stories,” Gillenwater said.

They found they had so much material — 55 on-air interviews, 3,000 video clips, and more than 700 photos — that most of it wouldn’t make it to the documentary or the book. So the trio decided to develop the Bigfork History Digital Archive of all the resources, which will live at the BACC in the center of the village.

It will be a living archive, as Bigfork residents are welcome to record their own oral histories and add their own photos, Kellogg said.

“The archive, to us, it meant we were capturing so many stories,” Gillenwater said. “We can’t let that go to waste.”

“It can become the center of the community if it’s an interactive thing,” Kellogg added.

Ivy echoed their statements.

“We’ve said from the beginning that this isn’t a comprehensive history of Bigfork,” she said. “As wonderful as the documentary is going to be, and the book is great, to have a lasting archive there available is amazing.”

Before tackling the Bigfork story, Ivy, Kellogg and Gillenwater worked together in collaboration with the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell to produce the popular film, book and exhibit, “A Timeless Legacy, Women Artists of Glacier National Park.”

So when Gillenwater found himself in Kellogg’s personal Bigfork archive, he knew it was a story they could tell. It would just be a matter of getting the time and energy to take on such a large project again — everyone working on it is volunteering their time, Kellogg said. (All proceeds from the project will go to the BACC.)

But many hands make for lighter work, and the collaborating trio found that help with their efforts was plentiful. It’s a testament to the lasting legacy of Bigfork: It’s a special village with people who work together to get things done.

“It’s a small place, but a lot’s happened here and a lot continues to happen,” Ivy said. “It’s really been a lovely effort of a lot of different people coming forward.”

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