KALISPELL – You could, were you so inclined, dismiss Kalispell as a convenient location for some big box stores, restaurants and right-wing politicos.
You’d be missing a much larger picture.
This is, after all, the fastest-growing city in all Montana.
Kalispell is home to absolutely none of three of the biggest attractions in the northwest corner of the state – Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake or Whitefish Mountain Resort – but is just minutes away from them all of them.
That proximity to some of the greatest of Montana’s great outdoors probably helps explain why Kalispell’s population grew by 40 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, to 19,927, and why it’s close to 22,000 today.
If that doesn’t seem especially large, don’t be misled. There are another 8,000 or so people next door in the unincorporated community of Evergreen, and Flathead County itself is fast closing in on 100,000 residents.
It was about half that as recently as the 1970s. Kalispell is at the center of growth also affecting the nearby towns of Columbia Falls (up 28 percent from 2000 to 2010) and Whitefish (up 26 percent).
In the past decade, businesses large and small have flocked to the north side of the city, clustering along the highway between Kalispell and Whitefish. Many of them are new, be they a Petco or Lowe’s or Cabela’s; others, like Sportsman & Ski Haus and Walmart, relocated to where the action has been moving.
Also in this growing area along U.S. Highway 93 are Kalispell Regional Medical Center, which makes Kalispell, well, a regional medical center, and the sprawling campus of Flathead Valley Community College, where 2,000 students study everything from nursing to beer brewing.
Downtown, longtime mainstays like Norm’s News, Western Outdoor and Moose’s Saloon help keep the traditional business district vibrant. It was in Moose’s, in 1966, where motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel said he first came up with the idea to attempt to jump Idaho’s Snake River Canyon.
Knievel said he was staring at a photograph of the Grand Canyon displayed on a wall above the saloon’s sawdust- and peanut shell-covered floor, and “the drunker I got, the littler that Grand Canyon looked.”
Just a few blocks south of Moose’s, Highway 93 parts like the Red Sea, to open up an island in the middle of the pavement where the Flathead County Courthouse sits.
In addition to its unusual diversion of traffic entering and exiting downtown – kind of like a town square, except it’s round – the 1905-built courthouse famously features a clock tower, but no clock.
They’ve never installed one, but did recently receive a $9,800 donation to do just that. Just in time, we imagine folks are saying.
It’s well over 100 miles to the nearest interstate highway from Kalispell, but the city sits at the intersection of U.S. Highways 2 and 93.
Just a few blocks east and south of both routes, you’ll find Kalispell’s roots.
The founder of Kalispell – the name is taken from the Salish Indian word “qlispel,” which means “flat land above the lake” – was businessman Charles Conrad. The eight-bedroom, 13,000-square-foot mansion he built for his family in the 1890s still stands, and tours of it are fascinating.
“The woodwork, the craftsmanship – you just don’t find anything like it,” said Keith Sage of Seguin, Texas, who was honeymooning in the Flathead Valley with his bride Kelsey earlier this month.
When the couple discovered Glacier’s Lake McDonald Lodge was already closed for the season, they decided to hit the Conrad Mansion instead. Both the lodge and the Conrad home were designed by architect Kirkland Cutter, who also drew up the plans for the Davenport Hotel in Spokane.
The Conrad Mansion is a three-story, 26-room affair with eight massive fireplaces, a fernery, a billiard room, a musician’s arch, indoor balconies, a modern-for-1895 kitchen (check out the “automatic” dishwasher, which was probably more work than washing dishes by hand), and filled with diamond-paned leaded glass windows and Tiffany-style stained glass near the stairway.
Teddy Roosevelt slept here. Charlie Russell slept here. Charles Conrad obviously did as well, but only for the last seven years of his life. He died in 1902, at the age of 52, from complications related to diabetes and tuberculosis.
Seventy years later, the mansion he built faced a highly uncertain future.
Not far from the Conrad Mansion sits another old three-story home. On a single night, it will attract more than a quarter of the number of visitors that the Conrad Mansion – which gets 8,000 – does in a year.
Giant spiders crawl outside its walls, ghosts float in its windows, cornstalks climb the rock pillars on its porch, and pumpkins line the several steps leading to the front door.
This is Nikki Sliter’s doing. The expansive Halloween decorations she uses to cover her home make the historic Agather House a favorite for trick-or-treaters.
Last Oct. 31, more than 2,300 kids knocked on the Sliters’ door.
“I come home from Grizzly football games on Halloween, and I can’t even get here,” says Nikki’s husband, Everit. “They come by the van-loads.”
The Agather House, built in 1910, has been in Sliter’s family since 1918.
“When I was a girl, we used to walk by here, and I told my mother, ‘Someday I’m going to live in that house,’ ” Nikki says.
Then, she adds with a laugh, “I had to grow up, marry into the family and wait for everybody to die, but I made it.”
The Sliters, who lived across the street from the Conrad Mansion before moving into the Agather House in 1988, were part of a determined effort to save the mansion at a time when most Kalispell elected officials and residents weren’t interested.
Conrad’s daughter, Alicia Ann Conrad Campbell, wanted to give the mansion to either the county or the city. She made the announcement on the day she buried her husband George, at a reception after the funeral hosted by the Sliters.
Both the city and county balked.
For one thing, the mansion was definitely not in the condition it is today. Alicia had long since moved out of the home and into a trailer house she parked in the backyard. Nikki Sliter says you couldn’t see the mansion from the street, the yard was so overgrown, and inside the house – well, let’s just say every room was literally knee- to waist-deep in almost anything you can imagine.
Alicia “never parted with anything, and collected everything,” Everit Sliter says. “The house was full of stuff. Every time they had a white sale at J.C. Penney, she’d go buy sheets, and they were still sitting in the bags. Their wedding presents from 50, 60 years ago were still in the house, unpacked.”
“Alicia and George would go to the B&B store, buy 10 cowboy hats at a time, bring them home and leave them in the sacks,” Nikki adds. “We found a Christmas tree in there that was still up, and didn’t have a needle left on it. It had been up for 20, 30 years.”
Everit Sliter, who was on the Kalispell City Council at the time, ran into stiff opposition when he proposed that the city preserve the home of its founder.
“There were some who said, ‘Don’t accept it, it’s a piece of junk,’ ” Sliter recalls. “You know, the ‘fix-the-streets’ types.”
The council put it to a vote of the people, and Kalispell voters shot it down by a 2-to-1 margin, Sliter remembers.
“I always thought we didn’t do a good job of selling our point of view,” Sliter says. “The opposition was better organized, and some days, you had to wonder if you were right.”
For four decades now, Sliter has been confident saving the mansion was right for Kalispell. The city eventually took ownership, mansion director Gennifer Sauter says, but only with the agreement that, after providing some money to get repairs started, the mansion would have to survive on its own.
It has. The tours, available for about half the year (when they don’t have to pay to heat the place) and other special events help pay the taxes, insurance, maintenance and other costs.
Sauter and Sliter say the late Sam Bibler, whose own Kalispell home and expansive gardens are opened for public tours twice a year, was one of the key players in saving the Conrad Mansion.
The mansion isn’t the only thing Charles Conrad left to the city he launched. Nearby Woodland Park, 38 beautiful treed acres known for the geese and ducks that live on its ponds year-round, was donated to the city by the Conrad family in 1910.
So was the 104-acre Conrad Cemetery, the final resting place for some 20,000 people, including Charles Conrad himself.
The mausoleum that holds Conrad’s remains sits at the back of a waterless peninsula of land that juts up high above the surrounding terrain, on what looks to all the world like a very short par-3 golf hole.
Behind the mausoleum, the peninsula quickly narrows until it is just wide enough to hold a dirt trail. The path leads to more than 100 stone steps set into a steep cliff that once provided Conrad’s widow private access to the cemetery.
“We called them the fairy steps,” Nikki Sliter says. “All the kids in town played on them when I was young. Sixty-five years ago, we all played on rafts on the ponds in Woodland Park, too, like we were Huckleberry Finn.”
The park and cemetery are to the east of the Conrad Mansion. To the west, you’re close to the even older, by a year, Central School (1894), now home to the Museum at Central School, and the 1903-built Carnegie Library, one of Kalispell’s most impressive historic structures and now home to the Hockaday Museum of Art.
The mix of this historic district and, just minutes away on the north side of town, the suddenly burgeoning strip of modern buildings and businesses, is not even remotely unique to Kalispell, of course.
Neither, probably, is the town’s politics. But that doesn’t make them any less interesting.
Kalispell has long been a conservative city – note the reluctance to spend taxpayer money on the Conrad Mansion 40 years ago – and a Republican stronghold.
In 2014, there were six county-level seats up for election. Democrats fielded a candidate in just one of the races, and lost that by a 2-to-1 margin.
Still – and not unlike a scene playing out on the national level – Kalispell Republicans are a house divided.
In 2014, the Flathead County Republican Central Committee publicly censured one of its own, state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, for “official misconduct and for undermining the credibility of Republicans in Flathead County.”
Tutvedt dismissed it as a “kangaroo court ... conducted by a small subset of the Republican Party that doesn’t want responsible Republicans who want to craft solutions and represent their constituents.”
Beyond infighting in the local Republican Party, there’s this about Flathead Valley politics: The Montana Human Rights Network has said the area has become “a particular focus for activism and the relocation for the far-right anti-government and white supremacist movements.”
In response, Pastor Darryl Kistler of Kalispell’s Community Congregational Church founded Love Lives Here, a group dedicated to counterbalancing what Kistler called the negative influence of a small group of radicals.
“The presence of extremist groups should not be representative of how people view the Flathead Valley because we all know that the vast majority of people living there have no interest in what the white supremacists are doing,” Montana Human Rights Network executive director Travis McAdams said when he honored Kistler’s group in 2012. “Love Lives Here has helped give that majority a voice.”
One of the Flathead Valley’s relatively new residents is Chuck Baldwin, who moved from Florida to the Kila area just west of Kalispell in 2010 – two years after he ran for president of the United States.
Baldwin finished more than 69 million votes behind Barack Obama in 2008, but the writer, radio broadcaster and pastor did collect 199,750 votes as the nominee of the Constitution Party.
“It’s a stacked deck,” Baldwin says now. “The TV networks will not give you air time, which keeps donors away. The debates are controlled by the two major parties and they won’t let third parties in. I think if you’re a candidate on enough state ballots that you could theoretically win the election, you should be in the debates. You can’t put five people on a stage to debate? The Republicans have more than that in their debates.”
Oddly enough, only a handful of those 199,750 votes came out of the state he now calls home. Baldwin was the Constitution Party nominee in 37 states, but Montana wasn’t one of them. Ron Paul, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2008, was the official Constitution Party standard bearer in Montana that year.
Baldwin actively campaigned for Paul during the Republican primaries, and Paul endorsed Baldwin in the general election. Baldwin finished behind Obama, John McCain, Ralph Nader and Libertarian candidate Bob Barr, and ahead of Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party nominee.
All of them, not just Obama and McCain, should have been allowed in the general election debates, Baldwin says.
The 63-year-old says he was a registered Democrat until 1980, when he joined the Republican Party. He departed the GOP in 2000, saying the Republican ticket of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney was too liberal for his liking.
“I think both parties have lost the soul of the American people,” Baldwin says. “Like multimillions of people, I’m fed up with both.”
Baldwin, who founded the Crossroad Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida, started Liberty Fellowship after arriving in the Kalispell area. Its website describes it as an “unorganized, unincorporated, nondenominational fellowship.”
It meets Sunday afternoons at the Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center, and Baldwin says his sermons draw 175 to 250 people a week. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Montana Human Rights Network say some of the congregants are white supremacists and anti-government extremists.
“We’re one of the most racially integrated churches in the state of Montana,” Baldwin says. “I invite anybody to come and see us, meet our people. The SPLC makes money lying about people like me.”
There’s no denying Baldwin’s political views are far to the right, and he doesn’t try to. One recent column he has posted calls for Christians to “find another church if the one they are attending has a pastor who does not ENTHUSIASTICALLY support the right to keep and bear arms. Such a pastor is completely void of even a basic understanding of Biblical and Natural Law.”
Another says allowing Pope Francis to address Congress “has to take the all-time prize for hypocrisy” and was a blatant violation of the separation of church and state.
As to his move to the Kalispell area five years ago, Baldwin says, “Per square mile, there are more liberty-loving people in the Flathead Valley than anyplace else in America. They love liberty, they love freedom, and they’re God-fearing.”
For others, the attraction of Kalispell is self-evident.
“It’s an awesome place to live,” Everit Sliter says, with no hint that the statement should require further explanation. “I feel lucky to have been able to live here, and be a part of this community.”
Sauter, the Conrad Mansion Museum director, is one who was born here, left after high school, and then returned after retiring from the Air Force.
“I spent 18 years trying to get out of town,” she admits, “and 20 trying to get home.”
They’re being joined by others all the time. No place in Montana is growing at a faster rate than Kalispell.