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Saturday, July 2, 2016

Kalispell's Culture and History

So many people I've talked to lately have been singing the praises of Glacier National Park and the beauty of Montana. They aren't wrong. In fact, Big Sky Country has a lot going for it and I'm glad I was able to take the time to drive through the country and explore some of it. While you could spend the money to stay in Glacier and totally immerse yourself in nature, I prefer the day trip aspect and being able to do non-outdoorsy stuff too. I mean, staying in Kalispell is like a world away and only a 30-40 minute drive to the Park. Plus, you can get some culture while you're in the city.
Kalispell Montana

Surprisingly, as small as Kalispell is, the downtown area has quite a few options for culture. If you love art, the small, but packed Hockaday Museum of Art will give you your fix. The museum used to be the city library, but when that grew out of the space, it became a place where they display some fantastic works of art.

Hockaday Museum of Art

On the day I visited, a school group was going through on a field trip, so they could learn about the artists on display as well. Hockaday has a permanent exhibit of Glacier and Montana paintings, artifacts and sculptures done by artists around the world and then they have three rotating exhibits. 

Hockaday Museum of Art
Two of these were Native Sons of the American West by Paul Surber, who did very realistic portrait paintings of Native Americans, and Above the Fruited Plain by Dwayne Wilcox, who drew interesting and fun Native American scenes on ledger paper (which you can see a sample of above taken from the Hockaday's museum handout. 

Hockaday Museum of Art
Downstairs were paintings and drawings that were part of Hockaday's personal collection and the third exhibit: Patterns by Jenny Balisle from San Francisco. This was much more modern, using 3D printed geometric forms and pen drawings. The room downstairs has a children's area, both a classroom for teaching, a play area for smaller ones and this space above that is in the exhibit room that gets kids thinking about art in their own way and encourages them to create their own art based on the work they see around them. For those wanting to take a little something home with them, the museum has a great little gift shop.

I'm told that during the summer (Kalispell's busy months) they do a special exhibit and this year they are doing a recurring one that focuses on women artists. In the past, they took women up to different places in the Valley and had them paint what they saw and now they take new artists to those same spots for them to paint what they see and then compare them, which sounds pretty cool to me.

Kalispell Museum at Central School

Literally, a block and a half away stood Museum at Central School, which is run by the historical society and is two stories (actually four stories, but you can only explore the ground floor the the second floor) and jam packed full of artifacts from Flathead Valley's history. This museum was actually the old school house and was the first building in the Kalispell to have hot and cold running water, electricity and indoor plumbing. Many of the kids came to school to take showers before classes, because they didn't have the luxury at home.

Kalispell Museum at Central School

Inside, you'l find a variety of things to peak your interest. Let's start on the second floor, which holds four rooms, two of which are not used for exhibits, but can actually be rented out for private events. They are large classrooms, one of which is home to a vintage bar. The other two rooms hold the Timber Exhibit, where you'll find a reproduction of a 1900's sawmill and hands-on activities to learn more about the timber industry of the Valley, and the History of Flathead Valley, which has a steamboat model and tells of the life of early settlers.

Kalispell Museum at Central School

The main floor has several rooms and has even more to look at than upstairs. One presents the stories of Northwest Montana's early pioneers, one holds their large gift shop that offers a lot of literature, one is dedicated to western Native American culture and includes things like the full-size tipi you see below, as well as clothing, beads and more. Once you head through this room, you'll find the room that celebrates and tells the story of pioneer Frank Bird Linderman and his family.

Kalispell Museum at Central School

Through the exhibits at Central School, you'll have a better understanding of the history of the valley and what life was like from the first settlers to the late 1800s. Make sure read the pamphlet that is given to you when you check in, as it has a lot of really interesting information about the building and it's varied uses over the years.

Kalispell Conrad Mansion

One of the places everyone told me I needed to see before I left was Conrad Mansion and I wasn't disappointed in that suggestion. It's a bit further away from the main street than the other places we visited, but it's still easily walkable. There's no parking, except in the surrounding neighborhood, so I recommend taking the walk if it's not raining. There are no pictures allowed inside the mansion and there are no bathroom facilities available to visitors, so if you need to go, hit up the public restrooms across the street from the front entrance.

Kalispell Conrad Mansion

If you have time, take a turn around the grounds, because they're beautiful. Tours start on the hour, so don't be late. The mansion is over 100 years old and belonged to Charles Conrad and his family. Charles Conrad settled in the Flathead Valley based on a coin toss with his brother. His brother went in another direction, taking the only coin they had between them and Charles eventually made it to Montana where he had a family, built his fortune, basically created the town of Kalispell and also owned the herd of buffalo that kept them from becoming extinct when they were overhunted. 


The story of Charles Conrad is amazing, but equally, if not more amazing is the house, which has three floors that you can tour. It had tons of modern conveniences that I've never seen in a historical house before, including an automatic dishwasher, an elevator, an automatic washing machine and heated drying racks as well as a very interesting way of calling servants from almost anywhere in the home. 

The mansion fell into disrepair at one point when the family had moved out and was overgrown to the point that you could only see the top of the roof. The city wanted to knock it down, but luckily it was saved and turned into a historical landmark. It's definitely a must-see if you're in town. It's well worth the price and will make you feel like we haven't come very far technologically. Things are just smaller and more affordable now. I'd love to visit again in the future. (Also, don't miss all the cool stuff in the gift shop. This is your chance to get a book with some photos in it that you couldn't take inside.)

Kalispell Montana
Almost all of downtown Kalispell is historical and all the buildings there used to be something else originally. Grab a walking tour map and take a stroll around town to see what each building is and what it used to be. It's totally free and it's fun. You'll also find great public artwork like this one that was put together by school children.





You'll also see these great additions to buildings that were designed by a local artist. It makes walking around the downtown area even cooler.



In the summer, you can head down to Bigfork for a play at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse. Prices are reasonable and they show a variety of performance during the season. We were fortunate enough to get there right as the season opened and got in on the popular Church Basement Ladies, which I believe is originally a Broadway Production.


The building is smallish, which means that all seats are good seats, because you're never far from the stage even if you're in the back. I loved it and the lobby is fantastic as well. If you have to leave at any time during the performance, you can continue watching it on monitors. There is a nice concession stand and the bathrooms are super clean...and they have more stalls than our larger theaters here with multiple stories. 

One of my favorite parts of the lobby is this lovely pressed tin ceiling. The light fixtures are gorgeous as well and there are beautiful costumes from previous performances set up. Bigfork is a cute little town where they hold kayak competitions and other outdoor activities. We didn't get the chance to explore it much, as we had other things planned, but the little downtown area has quite few restaurants and fun little shops and it's even more walkable than Kalispell. 

So, if you're visiting Glacier or Kalispell (or both) during the summer, make sure to make time for some or all of these activities. They are all pretty affordable, as even a performance ticket doesn't cost more than $30, which is excellent for the closeness of every seat. For more cool ideas on what to do in and around Kalispell, check out my dining experiences, outdoor fun and lodging.

Have you ever been to Kalispell?

Disclosure: My visit to Kalispell was sponsored by the Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau, but all opinions are 100% my own.
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