Exhibit

‘Metal from the Mountains’

A new exhibit with artifacts from the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company is on display at the Northwest Montana History Museum through the summer

By Maggie Dresser
A “runout sculpture” of solid aluminum on display at an exhibit on the history of aluminum processing in Columbia Falls at the Northwest Montana History Museum in Kalispell on April 7, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After many artifacts left at Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC) were sold or discarded when it permanently closed in 2015, members of the Columbia Falls Historical Society (CFHS) went through the remaining remnants, compiling a collection that can now be viewed at the “Metal from the Mountains: The Story of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company” exhibit at the Northwest Montana History Museum in Kalispell.

The exhibit features old photographs, documents and artifacts from the plant that was once the largest employer in the Flathead Valley, including a model of an aluminum pot line, original artwork by former CFAC employee Elmer Sprunger, a photo of 101 employees who started when the plant opened in 1955 and were still there for the 25th anniversary in 1980, and more.

CFHS President Peggy Sorensen says the exhibit mainly shows the process of making aluminum, which is explained through display boards and also shows an old scale from the lab.

“It’s a lot of things that people who worked there would remember,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen says society members went through the plant last fall, but there wasn’t much left by the time they got there.

A 50 pound ingot of aluminum sits in front of a high precision scale used for weighing chemicals at an exhibit on the history of aluminum processing in Columbia Falls at the Northwest Montana History Museum in Kalispell on April 7, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“The pot lines were gone,” Sorensen said. “We got out everything we could and put it into storage units. In the display, we have an original ingot.”

Sorensen was one of the first women who worked for the plant, starting in the 1976 as a pot tender before leaving in 1981.

“We had 10 pots and we had to make sure they were sealed with oar,” she said. “We used a press breaker and a big air hammer and we would break the crust on the pots, mix the oar into the bath … it was dirty.”

Sorensen remembers the plant being a large operation, but it wasn’t until she returned after it closed down that she realized how big it was.

“The amount of real estate for the 10 pot lines when you see it now … it was a big operation and it put a lot of people to work in Kalispell and Columbia Falls,” she said. “It produced a lot of aluminum.”

Sorensen remembers the impact CFAC had on the local economy and workforce, and she recalls a full parking lot of employees.

“It was such a big part of the economy and it completely changed Columbia Falls,” Sorensen said. “We used to be really rural and off the map and then we got the aluminum plant and we got so much income and tax revenue. Almost everybody worked at the plant or had a relative that did.”

“Metal from the Mountains” will be on display through the summer. The Northwest Montana History Museum in downtown Kalispell is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information, visit www.nwmthistory.org.

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