BIGFORK — There’s not much happening in this village without Donna Lawson’s knowledge, but last weekend, the unofficial mayor of Bigfork got a major surprise.
At precisely 5 p.m., a fire truck began making its way down Electric Avenue, passing the Jug Tree, a liquor store that Lawson’s father started in 1949, and making enough of a ruckus that Lawson had to walk out of her store to see what was happening.
And there it was: a surprise parade, a celebration of Lawson’s tenure at the helm of the Jug Tree, an acknowledgement of her work within the community and the passing of the torch as she retires and sells the business.
“It was a complete surprise; it was the biggest secret surprise Bigfork has ever pulled off,” parade organizer Tara Hoveland said with a laugh.
Lawson is a well-known pillar in the Bigfork community, ready to volunteer for anything and anyone as long as it helps the village and the valley. Her retirement from the Jug Tree, a familiar presence on Electric Avenue, is the start of a new adventure for Lawson, though her departure from the shop will be felt throughout the community.
“She’s been the best boss ever, and yes we’re going to miss her — the whole community is going to miss her,” said Pam Purcell, who has worked for Lawson since 2000. “Donna is the one in town who gets stuff done. It was the same way in high school.”
Born and raised in Bigfork, Lawson has loved the village her whole life. Her father Sam Stephens opened up shop in 1949 with Stephens Jewelry and Gift Shop, where the restaurant ShowThyme sits now. He was a watchmaker and repairman, and he moved the store to its current location in 1960.
Lawson graduated from Bigfork High School in 1972 and went to college in Billings and earned a teaching degree. In 1992, Lawson and her husband, Paul, who passed away in 2006, moved back to Bigfork where she started working at her father’s shop on and off.
When they found out her father had a brain tumor, Lawson got more involved.
“When dad got sick, I just took over,” she said.
That was the beginning of what would be decades of public service in Bigfork, Lawson said.
Lawson said it went like this: She told her friend Gretchen Gates that if she ever needed help with anything to reach out. Then Gates called and told her to show up at a meeting the next morning.
“I told my husband, ‘Paul! I have a meeting tomorrow!’ He said, ‘What for?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know!’” Lawson said.
Turns out, the meeting was about developing the Taste of Bigfork food festival, which Lawson helped shape into existence.
“Now it’s like, meeting, meeting, meeting, meeting,” Lawson said, laughing.
She’s served on boards for the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork — which her father helped found — the Foundation Board for Flathead Valley Community College, and is the chair for the Festival of Flavors, which last year raised $300,000 in scholarships for FVCC students. She’s also worked with the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts and is a Rotarian.
“Before this I used to golf four days a week,” Lawson said.
“Donna won’t say this about herself, but she is the most generous person,” said Greg Bloom, the CFO at the Jug Tree who is retiring with her after 12 years there. “She contributes to everything around here, no question. It’s just been great.”
Her employees are there for the long haul, an attribute Lawson said she looks for when hiring, and one the employees say is born from her inclusive and genuine management style. Customers have come to expect a “Donna hug” when they stop by, and Lawson said she’ll miss that particular aspect of her job.
“I’m going to miss the people, especially the summer people who I don’t get to see any other time,” Lawson said. “I’m going to miss the hugs. I’m a hugger.”
Gates, who is Lawson’s best friend and who runs her grandmother’s shop in Bigfork, Eva Gates Homemade Preserves, said Lawson is a force of good in their small community.
“She’s had a big impact since she moved back and took over the store. We do a lot of volunteer work; we run a lot of different fundraisers and stuff. She’s had a big impact. It’s been a lot of fun over the years,” Gates said. “She’s been very active in the community and taking after her father before her. We just enjoy it. Bigfork’s a great place to live and do business.”
Retirement looks like needlepoint projects and adventures with her significant other Kevin Marshall, Lawson said.
“I might get to enjoy summer; I might get to have some lake time,” she said.
Lawson said there were several potential buyers for the Jug Tree, but Richard Kramer’s offer showed up at the right time and everything fell into place. His son, Nevada Kramer, will run the shop’s day-to-day operations, and has already upgraded the shop’s computers (“Nevada’s been great because he’s real tech-y,” Lawson said).
It had to be the perfect fit or the sale wouldn’t have happened, she said.
“I wasn’t going to sell it to just anybody,” Lawson said. “It was almost like my dad sent them to me.”
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