Outdoors Issue 2019: Nature as Life Inspiration

Taking a job at a national park in her 50s led Carol Franco to a life driven by nature’s beauty

By Molly Priddy
Carol Franco, age 80, produces Western-themed jewelry from her home in Columbia Falls on June 27, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

COLUMBIA FALLS — Carol Franco’s warm, inviting home is full of markers of family and friends, a place filled with pictures, mementos, and art dedicated to the beauty of the natural world.

It’s a space you’d expect to find in Montana, where folks visit for myriad reasons but find themselves ensorcelled by the grandeur of the landscape and the welcoming communities.

For Franco, who turned 80 years old in May, the natural world is a refuge, as well as a source of inspiration behind her jewelry line, Mountain Lily Treasures. Nature is also the reason for her summer job, staying busy making reservations with the Glacier Park Boat Company in Columbia Falls.

For the first 50 years of her life, though, Franco didn’t know she loved the natural world as much as she did. But she got to the realization as quickly as she could, and hasn’t looked back since.

Franco grew up in Los Angeles; her father moved the family there after World War II and his discharge from the Merchant Marines. She stayed in California and built a life, raising her children in the sun and surf.

“I never could get them away from the beach,” Franco said.

As her children grew up and moved out of the house, Franco pursued more independence. She had been working as a paralegal in Orange County, but found the profession she’d studied for to be less fulfilling than she’d hoped. Then, about 30 years ago, her sister Mary and Mary’s husband moved to the Flathead for work.

“They came up for the summer, and that was 30 years ago,” Franco said. “I visited, and I just fell in love with the horses, being a city girl.”

Back in California, she happened to see an ad in the Orange County Register seeking a secretary at Sequoia National Park. After some cajoling from a friend, Franco applied and got the job that would shift the trajectory of her life.

“I now know I can’t live in the city anymore,” she said.

Living in the park seeped into her system, she said. When she left in the late 1990s, she was the director of operations at the park. She had a job lined up in Tucson, Arizona, but realized it wasn’t what she wanted. That led to wandering around from job to job for a while, until she landed in East Glacier for the summer in the late 1990s.

She worked as the “vaultress” for Glacier Park Inc., meaning she was in charge of the vault and its contents. Glacier National Park caught her attention just as Sequoia had, and she worked at various places all over the park, especially in Apgar.

As her mother aged, Franco moved back to California to work at Sequoia and be closer to her family. In 2008, Franco was diagnosed with breast cancer, and spent the year recovering from the cancer and its treatments. Also during that year, her mother and her ex-husband passed away.

“That was a hard, hard year,” Franco said.

So in 2009, ready to move on, Franco found this warm townhouse located just a block from her sister Mary’s home. Franco made the move, and began working with the Glacier National Park Conservancy before launching her jewelry business.

It started on a small scale, she said, with wildlife earrings sold here and there. But she found inspiration everywhere, and soon had a line of buffalo nickel jewelry, stretchy bead bracelets, and necklaces of all sorts. She and Mary took a road trip through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and California making cold calls to sell the jewelry.

“By then we were in our 70s,” Franco said.

Now more established, Franco has three or four dedicated accounts. Her biggest client is Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, which loves all her work with bison jewelry.

At 76, Franco applied for a job handling reservations at the Glacier Park Boat Company, and was thrilled when she got the job. This will be her fourth summer with the boat company, and Franco said what she might lack in computer skills she makes up for in knowledge of the park.

“I think I do pretty darn good for my age on computers,” she said with a grin.

Ready to face the organized chaos of summer, Franco got to work filling bracelet and necklace orders, sitting next to a window looking out into a forest, all because she decided to take a leap into nature 30 years ago.

“It changed my life,” Franco said.