A century ago, Montana’s U.S. Sen. Burton Wheeler and his wife, Lulu, would sit on their back patio and listen for the sound of music from Lake McDonald Lodge, which drifted down the shoreline to their property on the east end of the lake. If the couple heard a tune they liked, they’d drag their canoe to the waterfront and paddle across the lake to dine with visitors to Glacier National Park and have a dance or two.
Before departing, however, they’d place a lantern on a rectangular stone cairn along the lakefront, so that after the evening’s entertainment they’d have a beacon to guide them home.
For Glacier Conservancy Executive Director Doug Mitchell, who has requested a $493,200 Historic Preservation Grant from the state to complete rehabilitation and preservation work on the Wheeler Cabin and its adjacent buildings, the historic property has continued to serve as a guiding star for legions of visitors to Glacier National Park.
“When I think about this restoration project, the Wheeler Cabin has represented a beacon for many people to find their way home to the wilderness in Glacier,” Mitchell said. “This is a place of peace, of calm, of power and of majesty and it brings us home.”
The appropriations are part of the Montana Historic Preservation Grant (MHPG) Program, a state funded program created in 2019 to support the preservation of historic sites, historical societies and history museums with funding from the Department of Commerce. Montana Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, introduced House Bill 12 to the state Legislature with a list of 48 proposed projects that the governor’s office approved in the biennial budget, totaling $8.5 million.
Those projects include the Wheeler property, And although Gov. Greg Gianforte has not yet signed off on the preservation project, it’s unlikely to meet resistance from lawmakers who still revere Wheeler as a dedicated political hellraiser from Montana, where he launched a law practice almost by accident after losing his luggage on a trip to Seattle and, exactly a century ago, was elected to represent the Treasure State in Washington, D.C.
By then, the Wheelers had already staked out their property at the head of Lake McDonald, leasing the land in 1915 and purchasing the cabin a year later. In doing so, they created a summer gathering place for the family for the next 100 years.
Wheeler served as a member of the Montana House of Representatives from 1910-1912 and as a U.S. Senator for four terms from 1923-1947, when he gained a reputation as a prominent anti-interventionist, known for his outspoken opposition to the United States’ involvement in World War II. According to the Montana Historical Society, Sen. Wheeler was also instrumental in securing appropriations for the Going-to-the-Sun Road and authored some of his most important bills from his Lake McDonald property.
In 1941, the original Wheeler cabin burned down but was rebuilt, along with four additional buildings on the property. While reconstructing the main cabin, the Wheelers reached a lease agreement with the National Park Service to retain the property in the family’s name until the last of Sen. Wheeler’s children passed away. In 2014, the property reverted to Glacier Park ownership and, as the park’s nonprofit partner, the Glacier Conservancy began searching for funding opportunities to preserve the historic structure.
The MHPG application is a long process, requiring organizations to submit plans a year in advance for the Commerce Department to rigorously evaluate the applications.
“We were honored to be selected by the department for funding, and when I went over to the legislature and testified [last month] I got a very warm reception,” Mitchell said. “It was a great opportunity to share some of the Wheeler story with people who haven’t heard about it.”
Once renovations are complete, the Conservancy plans to turn the property into a day-use education center through a partnership with the University of Montana and the Glacier Institute. As the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park Center, the idea is to create a property where academics, nonprofit organizations and international delegations can visit and “engage and promote trans-boundary conservation through environmental peacebuilding framework.”
“In my grand vision, I see this as the place where world leaders could come together to think about grand agreements,” Mitchell said. “They can hash out agreements on the shore of the lake, take a walk along McDonald Creek to cool down and sit in the rocking chair on the back porch and share in their future visions. To stand at that location and think about Wheeler’s legacy and the whole Montana political legacy of a can-do spirit, you can’t help but be motivated.
Before world leaders descend on the cabin site, however, Mitchell said the first thing he’d like to see is a reunion of the Wheeler family.
“To me, being able to bring the senator’s grandchildren together at their old family home would be an incredible capstone to this project,” he said. “To let them look with pride on what their family, this park and this partnership accomplished, that would be an incredible moment.”
Mitchell told the Beacon that the Conservancy has invested in water and septic systems on the property in recent years to prepare for the major renovation work. As soon as Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signs off on the appropriations bill, the Glacier Conservancy plans to begin the restoration work, utilizing the local workforce as much as possible, with plans to complete the work within two years.
Once the renovations are complete, Mitchell said, there will remain one item of business to wrap up the project in earnest. On the lake’s edge, a stone structure still stands intact, marking the spot where Sen. Wheeler and his wife, Lulu, would place their lantern to guide them home during their evenings out at the lodge. To honor their legacy, Mitchell said, it’s only fitting to place a light on the stone cairn, paddle into the waters of Lake McDonald, and look back at the newly preserved Wheeler Cabin as a beacon for the future.
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