The Missouri is a big river, and it flows through even bigger country. In remote, sparsely populated parts of Central Montana, three ferries still transport farmers, ranchers and intrepid tourists across the wide river from mid-April through mid-November. My favorite is the Virgelle Ferry, largely because of the hospitality and gourmet food that await nearby.
Founded in 1912 by Virgil and Ella Blankenbaker along the tracks of the Great Northern Railroad near Coal Banks Landing on the Upper Missouri, Virgelle (pronounced ver-JILL), served as a shipping point and commercial center for homesteaders who were flooding in to settle Chouteau County.
That same year, the Blankenbakers also built a general store with upstairs living quarters. The business enjoyed many bustling decades, weathering several economic downturns, before a dwindling population caused its doors to close in 1970.
Five years later, a pharmacist named Don Sorenson, who'd grown up nearby on his family’s farm, saw potential in the ghost town. After purchasing the mercantile and doing three years' worth of extensive renovations, Sorenson reopened “The Merc” as a thriving antique business. He also converted the spacious upstairs — whose big, bright windows frame the surrounding river bluffs — into a charming bed & breakfast filled with antiques.
Sorenson also began hauling in and refurbishing a sheep wagon and six homestead-era cabins that he’d found within a 40-mile radius of town, placing them among the lilac bushes and elm trees that dot his sprawling backyard. “I added period furnishings, kerosene lamps and wood stoves,” says Sorenson.
Today, the Virgelle Mercantile Antiques & Accommodations enjoys a well-known reputation as an elegant and comfortable oasis and is a must-hit destination for treasure hunters and back-road adventurers alike. Though the shelves no longer hold groceries and dry goods, they do display maps, water, soda, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, ice cream bars, “And pretty much anything you’d need on the river,” says Sorenson.
More than a few of the guests who bunk at the 105-year-old mercantile launch straight from the breakfast table to the Missouri on multi-day canoe trips, so Don and Jimmy Griffin — a ferry operator who became Don’s business partner in 1993 — like to stuff ’em good. Cheerfully laboring over the antique Round Oak wood cook stove his grandmother found for him in an abandoned cabin, Sorenson plates up a variety of locavore breakfasts like waffles made from KAMUT wheat (raised by one of Don’s high school classmates) topped with homemade chokecherry syrup; platters of whole-hog sausage; and melons from Pearson’s Big Sandy Cantaloupe.
A recent guest who stayed six days was amazed by the variety of plates set before him. “We fed him KAMUT waffles topped with my mother’s apple compote recipe, western-style Cajun bacon from Saddle Butte Custom Smoking in Havre, made-from-scratch biscuits and gravy, Dutch Baby Pancakes, an egg puff pastry, eggs Benedict, and our signature baked French toast stuffed with cream cheese,” says Sorenson.
In warm weather, Griffin and Sorenson often serve a watermelon and blueberry salad tossed with a honey, lemon and ginger sauce topped with fresh mint from their herb garden. Occasionally, they’ll include the salad with “Dinner At Your Door,” a recent addition to their dining repertoire.
Working with Chandee Bomgardner of Bomgardner Catering in Loma, they’ve devised a list of one-pot meals which guests can cook themselves if ordered in advance of their stay.
“Chandee preps things like rib eye steak and rolls, a Mexican dish, a pasta dish, or a cold taco salad,” says Sorenson. “We’ll have everything guests need waiting at their door. They can grill it on our barbecue, or cook it in the microwave on our south porch and serve themselves.”
For close to 10 years now in April and October, Griffin and Sorenson have led a Dutch Oven & Wood Stove “Cook-Inn” class with Don’s sister Bonnie O’Gorman. The $150 tuition includes hors d’oeuvres, supper, overnight stay and breakfast the next morning.
“It’s a fun class because it’s hands-on,” says Sorenson. He teaches wood stove parts and pieces; Griffin mans the charcoal and fire, and O’Gorman instructs attendees on how to clean a Dutch oven and calculate the number of briquettes needed to reach and maintain a certain temperature.
Students arrive at 1 p.m. on Saturday and make seven or eight dishes — from appetizers, main courses and sides to breads and desserts. “They work with both types of stoves and get to eat what they prepare,” says Sorenson, whose grandmother taught him to cook on the wood stove she’d hunted down.
“My grandmother would let me make mistakes on my own first, and then she’d correct me,” explain Sorenson, who said it took him four stabs at baking bread before he had something he could actually eat.
“I just love what we do, “ says Sorenson with a smile. “The whole world comes to my backyard, and I get to show them where I grew up."
He got the ultimate compliment from a guest a few years ago who told him, “I don’t feel like I’m leaving a place of business. I feel like I’m leaving the home of a relative.” That’s certainly how I feel every time I pull away from Don and Jimmy’s front porch.