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Wood magic: Swan Valley artisan's home, furnishings made history
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Wood magic: Swan Valley artisan's home, furnishings made history

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LINDBERGH LAKE — Some things never change.

There’s still a distinct tang of self-reliance up here at the top of the Swan, where trees screen out neighbors and the river's chatter obscures other sounds of the woods.

Here, less than a mile from the historic Lindbergh Lake Lodge, John Stark built a larch log home in 1939. The wood furnishings and carvings he hewed by hand over the next four decades remain intact. Together they’re about to graduate from works of art to authentic pieces of Montana history, and they’re taking their maker with them.

On Friday the Montana State Historic Preservation review board, meeting by Zoom, gave a thumbs-up to a nomination of the Stark House to the National Register of Historic Places. The recommendation will be forwarded to the keeper at the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., for the final determination.

The private home that Stark left in his will to friends and neighbors Vern and Joanne Guyer was one of eight structures considered by the board in its thrice-annual review, and the only one in western Montana. The others were an airway beacon in Broadwater County east of Helena, a grain elevator in Livingston, a ranger station in Carbon County, two churches in Blaine County, a parochial school in Billings and a hall with a history in Petroleum County. That was three or four more nominations than usual, said John Boughton, National Register coordinator for the Montana Historical Society who helped Steve Lamar of Condon with the Stark House nomination.

Missoula County commissioners gave their endorsement of the Stark House listing on Thursday.

There are four criteria under which a property can be listed, and the log house in the Swan Valley qualifies under two of them. It’s both associated with “the lives of persons significant in our past” and embodies “the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master …”

The second is a common characteristic on the National Historic Register, Boughton said. The first one not so much.

“In this case we’re focusing on John Stark himself and his woodworking skills, not just in his construction of log cabins but also translated into the making of beautiful furniture,” Boughton said last week from his office in Helena. “In talking to Steve, he related that John Stark was a notch above the extremely talented woodworkers in this area.”

“Every time I come here I get a new appreciation of it,” Lamar, president of the Upper Swan Valley Historical Society, said in a recent visit to the cabin. “Everything John Stark did was with hand tools. He didn’t have any motorized, mechanized (equipment). I’ve done rustic furniture and I’ve built my own log house. Nowadays even with chainsaws and grinders and sanders and drills and all that stuff, it’s still a pretty labor-intensive project. But to do it by hand …”

 ***

Zoom in, then, on John Stark, a man who spent most of his life here fashioning wood into something special.

Stark died in 1989, but let’s picture him in September ‘39 on the roof of the house he is building for himself and Marie, his wife of 14 years. Ax in hand, he hews another notch of precision in a joist of larch.

Marie is the daughter of Cap and Tyne Laird, who with Stark’s help built their own historic lodge on Lindbergh Lake in the late 1920s and presented the Starks with their own choice of homesites on their 1,000-acre tract. Through John's contacts with summer guests at the lodge he developed a national and international market for his work.

"His stuff is all over the world. He shipped it everywhere," a friend, Joan Meyer, told Suzanne Vernon in a 2003 interview with her husband Henry that appeared in the a compilation of stories published in 2011 called "Montana: Voices of the Swan." 

Marie is making brief daily entries in her diary of the construction process that started on June 19 with a crew clearing the homesite (“Nat and Emil worked. Blew up some stumps.”) and will last through move-in date on Dec. 9. The journal will come in especially handy 80 years later when Joanne Guyer lends it to Lamar to aid in his research for the National Register nomination.

***

Or better yet, picture John Stark standing downstairs at his work bench, an older man now, rubbing linseed oil into another immaculately crafted piece of lodgepole furniture with a visage that could best be called rapture.

Stark built uncounted log homes in the area back in a time when they stayed where they were built. Some of his furniture pieces can make you gasp in their craftsmanship and innovation.

The late Mildred Chaffin visited the Starks at their home in 1965 and her description then is just as apt now, making for what Lamar called in the national register nomination "a sort of living museum dedicated to everything that was the Starks."

“Look any direction and there lies the results of (John’s) handiwork — wide polished window sills with a decorative contrast of beautifully finished piece of the driftwood type,” Chaffin wrote for the Missoulian. “The rustic davenport and chairs, with their cushions of foam rubber, were built for beauty and comfort, with matching foot stools patterned after early American foot warmers, wrapped with carpeting.

“There are matching floor lamps and sewing basket, the latter hollowed from a burl.”

Chaffin told of the coffee table, a “masterpiece” that, like most everything else, the Guyers retained after they moved into the home in 1990. It’s made, she said, of “one huge larch burl with a smaller one inverted for the base,” both pieces “rubbed with oil to a taffy colored glow.”

Stark used a lot of lodgepole, straight-grained and readily available, but also other local materials of junior, ponderosa pine, fir, larch and even quaking aspen — “all painstakingly peeled and seasoned without the marks of a knife,” Chaffin said.

"That guy could do anything with the old hand tools," marveled Henry Meyer, who joined Stark in his log home and furniture crafting business in the mid-1960s. "He was terrific. He was a perfectionist. Everything had to be just so." 

"It was like going on a vacation working with him, to be learning things and to be working in a place like Lindbergh Lake, and to be working with somebody that was so extremely knowledgeable about almost anything," Meyer told Vernon in the 2003 interview "There was nothing you couldn't talk to him about that he didn't know." 

Marie Stark furnished inspiration, “dreaming up ideas while she does the upholstering in the ‘crows nest’ above the living room,” Chaffin wrote.

The crow's nest, designed and built by John, “is the answer to a dream for any woman who sews, with its unique fold-up cutting table, sewing machines and moth-proof drawers. Marie can look down over the railing and make suggestions, or approve the odd specimens John brings in from his prowling the timber.”

The crow's nest came later, according to Joanne Guyer.

“When they first built they didn’t have a loft up there, but he added it as her work room,” said Guyer, who lost husband Vern four years ago. “Marie did a lot of craft-like work. She made notecards and from deer hides she’d make slippers or little bootie-type things for babies. She did a lot of sewing. I know she sewed her own clothes.”

The main living quarters were built over what the Starks used as a dirt-floor garage and John’s workshop. The Guyers later installed a concrete floor. That and a steel roof to replace hazardous cedar shake shingles in the 1990s are among the few changes they’ve made in the 40 years since John Stark lived there. 

“Another thing neat about the cabin, John Stark actually built a lot of furniture in the basement," Boughton said. "He didn’t have a shop outdoors or adjacent to the house. A lot of construction and designing occurred in that very building, so it’s kind of a two-for-one, essentially.”

***

In his later years John Stark turned more and more to wood carving. Joanne Guyer has a collection of wooden apples, oranges and other fruits that he fashioned for her in typical exquisite detail.

Twenty-one representations of animals, most of them wildlife in the area, grace a wall of the Swan Valley Library in Condon 11 miles away. They were gifts Stark signed over in 1983 with the assistance of a conservator as the cloak of Alzheimer's closed in on him.

He spent his last years in a convalescent home in Bigfork before passing away at age 84 on March 5, 1989, at Lakeview Care Center in Kalispell. The dateline on his obituary read “Swan Valley.”

Marie preceded John in death in 1974. They had no children, and in succeeding years a friend and attorney from Great Falls who summered in the Swan convinced Stark to make out a will.

At the time the Guyers were living in Minnesota where Vern, a 1952 University of Montana graduate, had just retired after a career in forestry and research chemistry.

“He sent us a letter and told us he'd written a will and he was leaving us the property,” Joanne Guyer said. “He thought that Vern would appreciate it and take care of it.”

As a teenager Vern Guyer served a couple of years with U.S. Army occupation forces in Italy after World War II. He wasn't yet 21 when he started working for the Condon Ranger District in 1949 and came to know John Stark. Stark’s woodworking skills piqued the younger man’s interest, and he and the Starks maintained a steady if often long-distance relationship over the years.

“They more or less treated him as a son and kind of took him under their wings,” said Joanne Guyer, who married Vern in Minnesota in 1961. The family often returned to Lindbergh Lake in the summer, especially after daughters Bonnie and Jennifer were born. 

Later Vern Guyer put to use what he'd learned from Stark, paying tribute to his late mentor in a flyer for his own furniture business.

“Of the early artisans who handcrafted a wide array of rustic furniture, the unique log furniture of John Stark was designed for proportion and durability, and it reflected his artistic nature,” it said. "Indeed, his work is still sought and collected today.”

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Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian

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