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Owners hope to rebuild historic Montana inn destroyed by fire

Owners hope to rebuild historic Montana inn destroyed by fire

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Exchange-Bunkhouse Inn Fire

This undated file photo shows The Bunkhouse Inn in Augusta that was originally built in 1912. The Bunkhouse Inn burned down on Oct. 10. The owners, Matt and Lori Folkman, said they hope to rebuild it. 

GREAT FALLS — The owners of a historic hotel on Main Street in Augusta that burned down recently are planning to rebuild a new hotel that they hope will become the western community's next treasure.

The new Bunkhouse Inn, if it is rebuilt, will capture the western character and history that marked its predecessor, but modern conveniences will be included, owner Matt Folkman told the Great Falls Tribune.

"It's just watching history disappear," Folkman said of the Oct. 10 fire that reduced the iconic Bunkhouse Inn to rubble and stunned the community of 300 residents in the heart of ranching country on the east slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

The heat from the flames was so intense firefighters made the decision to bulldoze the hotel before shooting flames jumped to other buildings on Main Street including next-door Latigo and Lace.

At one point, residents formed a line, like a fire brigade passing buckets of water, to hand artwork from Latigo and Lace to a building across the street to protect it from heat and smoke damage.

"We've got to determine how to get the pile of debris removed," Folkman, 51, said Tuesday morning, when he and Lori, 46, his wife and co-owner, were waiting to hear from an insurance adjuster.

Also on Tuesday, the Folkmans still were waiting for the final report on the cause of the fire, which brought firefighters from neighboring communities to assist.

"Their suspicion is there was maybe some sort of faulty wiring inside a wall that maybe smoldered for hours before it became a fire," Matt Folkman said. "I think the official ruling will be undetermined."

At this point, the goal is to rebuild, Folkman said. He estimates the cost at $600,000 to $700,000.

Replicating the charm and history of the two-story, 4,300-square-foot hotel revered by locals and international travelers alike isn't possible Folkman said.

But the Folkmans are confident that they can build a new hotel with modern conveniences that will mimic the "bunkhouse tradition" while making the community proud.

"It will be the first new building in town for decades," Folkman said.

The fire has sparked memories of the important role the hotel played in the community over the decades.

Residents got married at the Bunkhouse. It was a prom venue for others.

"Just all sorts of fun little stories," Folkman said.

Locals aren't the only ones with fond memories.

Much of the traffic the Folkmans saw at the hotel was visitors heading to Glacier National Park to the north or hiking the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, which includes 820 miles along Montana's Rocky Mountains.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, international travelers were paying customers.

"We had hikers come in from Italy, Australia, you name it they hiked through here," Matt said. "They love the community."

Matt and Lori moved to Augusta from western Montana's Bigfork.

Matt, who is self-employed, originally arrived in the community to work as a construction superintendent on an area ranch.

"It was remote and in all honesty, there's not a whole lot of people who were willing to move to a small town like this as opposed to moving and living in Great Falls, Kalispell, Bozeman, that had more conveniences," Matt said. "It literally didn't take me a month to fall in love with the people in town here."

A year ago, the Folkmans purchased Wagons West RV Park and Motel, located a block from the Bunkhouse.

Saturday, the day the Bunkhouse Inn burned down, was the one-year anniversary of that purchase.

At the Wagons West location, Matt and Lori reopened a restaurant that had been closed for 12 years.

They purchased the Bunkhouse Inn from Donna Hartelius of Great Falls, just a month before it was destroyed by the fire. The family lived on the first floor.

"My wife and I just love history and old buildings especially in this town and then that place popped up for sale," Folkman said. "We both just kind of jumped to own a building like that."

The Hotel Gilman was originally constructed in 1912 in the community of Gilman, located 2 miles northeast of Augusta on U.S. Highway 287. Gilman faded away in the 1920s.

"They fought back and forth to be the dominant town," Matt Folkman said. "Augusta ended up winning out."

After Gilman lost, Hotel Gilman was cut in half. Mules were used to haul it up the road to Augusta.

"There was a lot of character to that building," Folkman said.

Names of old coffee brands could be seen in the hallway floors. The tin cans were used to cover the seams where the hotel had been cut in half.

"They had little tacks and they had tacked right over the seam of the floor so you could still see the branding from back in the day," Folkman said.

Over the fireplace in a breakfast nook was a sketch of a cowboy riding a bronc in a pencil sketch, dated in 1913. A cowboy staying at the hotel — not Charlie Russell — who was lying on his back decided to sketch the piece on the ceiling. Over time the sketch was covered by wallpaper. The piece was discovered in a remodel, framed and placed above the fireplace.

"It was just a really unique piece of art," Folkman said.

Each of the nine bedrooms had antique bed frames and the flooring was maple.

A bullet hole from a 1920s standoff remained in one spot on the floor.

During a remodeling a few years ago, the dropped ceiling was torn out to expose the original tin stamped ceiling tile.

"It's just watching history disappear," Matt said of the loss of the hotel, which was built in 1912.

Lori Folkman is a Great Falls native who graduated from C.M. Russell High School. Her father and brother own Rowley's Trucking in Great Falls.

The family has historic connections to the Rocky Mountain Front, settling in Bynum, a tiny unincorporated community north of Augusta, 100 years ago.

Ernest Rowley, Lori's uncle, made his way to Augusta and ran a meat locker with his wife, Doris, that today is the home of Latigo and Lace. The couple also managed the Bunkhouse Inn through the 1970s.

Rebuilding the Bunkhouse is big commitment, Matt Folkman said. He and Lori want to bring it back because of the community's strong connection to it and its important location on Main Street.

"It's piled rubble on the ground," Folkman said.

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