A few years ago musician Kathy Sullivan was performing at Whitefish Care and Rehab. She noticed that a man in a wheelchair “with a great smile” was watching her very intently. After the show she went up to talk to him.
“He said ‘You don’t recognize me, do you?’” she said. “As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew it was him.”
Sullivan had run into Jim Curtis, the former manager and owner of the Viking Lodge at Whitefish Lake, who is now in his 80s. The lodge is what first brought Sullivan to the Flathead Valley, where she continues to live and work as a musician and photographer.
Starting in the 1970s Sullivan performed at the lodge during the summertime with her now ex-husband when she was in her mid-30s. They played music—guitar, and a Hammond B3 organ—and interspersed bits of comedy.
“We were kind of a wannabe Sonny and Cher,” she said.
Sullivan said they spent only one winter at the lodge, specifically because of everything they heard about its iconic Christmas tree. Recalling it now, her voice fills with excitement.
“Oh my gosh,” she said. “It was just amazing, and people would come to the Viking just to see the tree. That was kind of the big thing to do in those days at Christmas.”
Though decades have passed, the annual tree and decorations remain a treasured memory for some Whitefish residents.
The centerpiece of the lodge decorations was the tree, a massive ponderosa pine in the upper dining hall, typically at least a couple dozen feet tall, covered in white flocking to simulate snow, and draped with more than 1,000 blown glass baubles. The upper reaches of the tree had to be decorated by someone suspended from the ceiling, and part of the display included animatronic figures that moved to Christmas music. The tradition lasted about a decade.
Curtis orchestrated the display and said he brought the idea with him from a restaurant he had in Minnesota. It was the product of what he describes as his creative mind. And, of course, he was also motived by his love of Christmas, and a holiday tendency to overdo things that stretched back to his childhood in Minnesota. When he was younger he worked as a soda jerk, meaning he ran a soda fountain at a drug store.
“As a kid I buried the tree with gifts for my mom. And we were poor. My dad passed away when I was 6. So it was just Mom. And in those days women made about 10 cents an hour,” he said.
Over the years Curtis has kept a scrapbook close. The blue, square cover encompasses pages covered in plastic sleeves. At times the book has been stored in a fire safe, and it’s now wrapped in two plastic bags for added layers of protection when it isn’t being used.
Inside the book are some of his most treasured memories from the decades he spent as a Whitefish business owner in the restaurant industry. There are old photos, newspaper clippings and even a handwritten note written from 1986 by now deceased Whitefish residents Gloria and John Austin. The letter heaps thanks on Curtis for the great experiences they had eating at one of his restaurants.
Hearing it read aloud recently caused Curtis to fight back tears.
A stroke roughly four years ago caused him to lose nearly all motor function on the right side of his body. Things had to be learned again, and he has regained some movement. In the beginning, Curtis said, all he had on his right side was the ability to move his index finger.
He uses a motorized wheelchair to move around, and the stroke has affected his speech. He lives now at Whitefish Care and Rehab.
Was it difficult?
“If I could figure out how to drop a ponderosa onto the ground without breaking any branches, I can figure out how to flush a toilet,” Curtis said of his recovery.
Finding the perfect tree for the lodge was a time-consuming endeavor, and Curtis said one year he drove over 2,000 miles until he saw the right one. His search for a tree took him throughout the northwest. He would look for height, but also things like shape in the branches.
A 1975 Daily Inter Lake article described the effort to get the tree into the lodge. “To prevent damage the tree is gently lowered to the ground with the help of men, trucks, pulleys and cables. The limbs are then bound for the trip back to the lodge.”
The article goes on, explaining that “the next step is to tighten the branches with logging truck cinch load binders, in which each strap has 11,000 pounds of pulling strength. After they take the tree in a cocoon-state, it takes a 28 member crew to carry it to the second floor, where the binders are removed.”
Part of the process involved storing the tree in the lodge coffee shop for several days to allow the branches to gain some pliability. The tree needed to travel through 36-inch doors before it could reach its final destination. The A-frame roof was a perfect fit for the tree, and Curtis offered the reward of an open bar for anyone who helped carry the massive pine.
The Inter Lake reported that it took 16 hours just to flock the tree. A special tent was built for that process.
Rick Roessler, who was a co-owner of the lodge, said one of the final steps was collecting ponderosa pine branches from the property of a doctor in Eureka and hauling them back to the lodge by the trailerful. Those were then nailed to the tree’s lower reaches to give it a more full appearance. Floodlights were used to illuminate the tree. People would make reservations and wait in line for tables. In addition to drawing people from the valley and western Montana, he said Canadians would also come down to see the tree.
“It’s a big tree inside, all lit up with a million ornaments on it. How could you not be just in awe of it,” he said.
The tree rested atop a stand weighing several hundred pounds. Curtis said that “the giving” is the most important thing about Christmas. Fittingly, the area around the base of the tree eventually came to be a storage space for donated gifts distributed by the Whitefish Rotary Club to needy children.
It was such a massive effort that the tree went up by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, and stayed up until the week before Easter. “And believe it or not we had someone come up on Easter and really complain because the tree was gone. They drove all the way up from Missoula to show their friends this tree and it was gone,” Curtis said, laughing.
An old newspaper headline in the scrapbook claimed the tree to be 50 feet tall one year. Curtis offhandedly said the headline was wrong, before chuckling.
“Actually it was 29 (feet),” he said. “When you walk up the steps into the upper dining room and this image is at the other end, I mean, people thought it was 100 feet.”
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