Couple has restored the Dixon Mercantile, turning the once-abandoned building into a center for food, fellowship and art
DIXON - Old-timers in the Jocko Valley tell stories about the early days of Dixon - how the town thrived and grew as a river port when folks up and down the length of the Flathead and Clark Fork rivers traveled and moved goods mostly by boat.
The stories tell of a time when Dixon's population swelled to several thousand before the railroad came through and put an end to the river traffic.
But even as a railroad stop, Dixon remained a gathering place for many years, a midway resting point between destinations such as Missoula and points west in Montana, Idaho and Washington.
Crystal Kingston and Piere Pahl heard the stories of Dixon's history from the local residents after they purchased the vacant and abandoned Dixon Mercantile four years ago. The couple meticulously restored the spacious 1912 building, which has seen the heyday of the town, as well as its long, steady decline to the current population of 200.
In October, Kingston and Pahl opened the Wild Plum Station, a charming combination of restaurant, general store and art gallery in the old landmark building on Highway 200 in the center of Dixon.
"When we first bought it," says Pahl, "we opened for awhile. And we had some old-folks story gatherings on Saturday nights. We called them 'Stories from the Jocko Valley.' We had three Saturdays with the old white people in the area, and two Saturdays with the Indians - called 'Coyote Stories.' We learned a lot from them. They said the town was called the Wild Plum Station, from the train stop. People would come up from Missoula when they had the passenger train and bring their baskets and pick wild plums."
The new incarnation of the Wild Plum Station
features more than 200 pieces of art by regional artists, with new art openings on display the first Saturday of every month. Most of the artwork is for sale for under $50, according to Kingston.
The third Saturday of each month, the gallery presents live celtic music by the local group, Sullivan and Friends. Other local musicians often drop in to play on other Saturdays.
The restaurant serves lunches and dinners, homemade soups, desserts, beer and wine, and fine pastries baked fresh daily, including real Cornish pastries following recipes from Kingston's grandmother. Another restaurant specialty is Spaetzle, a traditional German dish of noodles or dumplings, from a recipe supplied by Pahl's German immigrant mother. The food is prepared under the guidance of Kingston, who has always had a passion for cooking, and extensive experience working in restaurants in New York.
The small general store upholds the historic tradition of the building, which also once served as the Dixon post office.
The Wild Plum Station is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Kingston and Pahl are both artists themselves.
A native of Great Falls who attended art school in New York, where she lived for 12 years, Kingston creates luxurious batiks and diverse ceramic pieces.
"I do a little bit of everything," she says. "I like ceramics. There's something about getting your hands in there and working with the clay. It's a bit like baking bread."
While living in New York, Kingston says, she dreamed of returning to Montana and opening "some kind of shop." She came back to her home state about 10 years ago.
A stonemason by trade, Pahl crafts carved furniture and custom frames from old wood. After graduating from Montana State University with a degree in arts, he continued to live in Bozeman, until "it grew too fast and changed."
The couple met in Hot Springs, where they both moved several years ago, seeking a place to live cheaply and pursue their artwork. One of their motives for the move to Dixon was a need for larger studio space. The cavernous back rooms of the Wild Plum Station provided more than adequate accommodations for their work.
Four years ago, Pahl was commuting regularly from Hot Springs to a job in St. Ignatius, when he began to notice the old Dixon Mercantile, sitting empty and dark. Before long, he and Kingston had bought it.
"We spent four years getting her going," Pahl says of the building. "All the pipes were broke and the floor was caving in. I had to jack up the floorboards. We gave the whole building a coat of paint. So it took a while to get her back running."
"We work well together," adds Kingston. "He'll do the carpentry and stonemasonry, and I'll do the finishing. It's worked out well how our skills have complemented each other."
Their remodeling efforts were designed to enhance the historic character of the building, and included classic wooden trim that Pahl salvaged from the old Towanda Hotel in Hot Springs when it was torn down, as well as antique items from the old Daly Mansion in Hamilton that Kingston's mother acquired at an auction.
"This old building has seven masonry chimneys in it," marvels Pahl, "some of them not connected to anything."
The array and variety of artwork displayed from wall to wall completes the Wild Plum Station's ambience.
"We both have strong European backgrounds," says Kingston. "I lived in Paris and he spent a lot of time in Germany. We always wanted this place to reflect the different cultures we have been exposed to."
The featured artist at the Wild Plum Station during the month of December was Jo Rainbolt of Hot Springs, whose bright, vibrant oil pastel paintings and drawings focus on themes of frogs, bears and Turkish women.
Last month the gallery spotlighted the work of Moiese sculptor Lila Fayler. Some of her pieces continue to be on display.
Other artists currently represented at the gallery include the mixed media of Arlee's Malcolm O'Leary; photography by Marti de Alva, also of Arlee; ceramic tile by Linny Gibson's Fired Art Studio in Hot Springs; and original wool and beaded leather clothing and accessories by Jill Mainard of the Mission Valley.
January's featured artist at the Wild Plum Station will be former Missoulian photographer Harley Hettick, who will exhibit his "Powwow Series" of photos from Indian powwows across Montana in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The opening of his show will be Saturday, Jan. 3, which will also feature live music by local solo acoustic performer Tom Catmull.
Kingston and Pahl are excited about their business's future in Dixon.
"We will have outdoor dining and music events in the yard starting next spring, with an outside beer garden and cafe," says Kingston. "We're going to reinstitute our Stories from the Jocko Valley gatherings. And we want to open our studio here and have workshops. We're really excited to start doing classes and workshops. I want to have a live drawing class and bring in a model."
Also next spring, she and Hot Springs artist Linny Gibson plan to offer a two-part workshop on making hand-formed ceramics and glazing techniques. Kingston says she's received several requests to do some art history lectures. And another area resident has offered to hold yoga classes at the Wild Plum Station.
"Piere wants to start some guided river floats on the Flathead, couple-hour trips from Moiese down, and get out right across the street from here," Kingston says.
The couple is also hatching plans to sponsor a river race during Dixon's annual summer harvest festival, Melon Days.
"The possibilities are endless for creative things to do here," says Kingston.
She says she believes the Wild Plum Station's combination of art, food and music can be a unifying force in the small, rural community.
"I think there's a need for a place like this," says Kingston. "A wonderful cross-section of people come together here. This place used to serve as a kind of crossroads and gathering place in the old days - kind of mid-way between stopping points. We hope it becomes that again."
Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at email@example.com