Where Bigfork History Comes Alive

Bigfork Art and Cultural Center brings the Bigfork History Project online

By Maggie Dresser
Looking south along Electric Avenue in downtown Bigfork. The photo was taken as the community gathered for a 4th of July parade in the 1930s. Image from the collection of Denny Kellogg

Before Ed Gillenwater began working on the Bigfork History Project, he noticed the community was starting to lose memories and stories of the town’s early days and history.

In addition to visitors and new community members, Gillenwater says even many long-time Bigfork residents were unaware of their town’s past.

“We saw that a lot of the history was going away and the community was losing that,” Gillenwater said. “There was really no place in the community that was documenting that history, so our mission was to ensure the collection and preservation in that digital form of all these stories, documents and artifacts.”

In the coming weeks, the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center (BACC) is gradually launching the Bigfork History Project through an online exhibit on the Bigfork History Network website, to be paired with an interactive exhibit once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Archives and documentary collaborations with Swan River School and Bigfork High School will be included.

The exhibit has roots in a full-length documentary that Gillenwater, Denny Kellogg and other community members launched in 2017.

“When we were producing the documentary, we knew at the time that we were going to collect a lot of historic content and information as we interviewed people,” Gillenwater said. “(We) had over 50 hours of video interviews and nearly 1,000 photos that were collected.”

The documentary includes interviews with Bigfork’s senior community members, geology professors from the University of Montana and other experts.

BACC Executive Director Laura Hodge says the exhibition called “Bigfork Stories: Where History Comes Alive,” sponsored by the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork, was scheduled to open on Friday, March 13, but she was forced to cancel it the day before. Hodge says the center shifted gears to bring the exhibit to a digital format but still plans to run the in-person exhibition in Bigfork once restrictions are lifted. The exhibition will have an interactive touch screen where people can access photos and videos along with printed photos on the BACC’s walls.

“We want people to understand it’s not just to look at,” Hodge said. “It’s an interactive exhibit and we want people to touch it and get engaged … We want to be engaging and we want to make connections.”

In collaboration with the Swan River School in Bigfork, which was founded in 1893 before Bigfork’s township was formed in 1902, fifth-graders from Shelly Emslie’s class created short documentaries related to the school, featuring former students from the 1940s.

Bigfork High School senior Scout Jessop also collaborated to create her senior project of oral history interviews. She conducted interviews with residents at the Lake View Care Center, which she had to shift to phone interviews amid the pandemic. Gillenwater says she’s currently editing the project, which will be launched on the Bigfork History Network website in the coming weeks.

For now, Gillenwater and Hodge will gradually add more content to the Bigfork History Network’s website while encouraging people to attend the exhibition at the BACC once its doors reopen.

“We felt it was a pivotal point … to help people experience this community as not just a resort town but as a home town and to capture that element of the community that so many people didn’t know about,” Gillenwater said. “And it makes their lives richer to know about that.”

To view the Bigfork History Network, visit www.bigforkhistorynetwork.org.

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