For 20 years, The Museum at Central School has brought the community together over the shared history of the Flathead Valley.
By Gil Jordan. Photograph provided by The Museum at Central School.
124 years ago, the fledgling town of Kalispell was little more than a few wooden business structures on Main Street and a scattering of homesteader log cabins spread around the valley. But the area was growing, and when those early citizens decided in 1894 to erect their very first substantial stone and brick building, their choice was to build a school. And they did it right, spending $20,000 (a lot in 1894) and using locally made bricks and materials to create a majestic four-story edifice in the impressive Richardsonian-Romanesque architectural style. If you’ve passed by the glorious old landmark, which now houses a history museum at 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street East, but never stopped to check it out, it is worth a look, both inside and out.
The building began as an elementary school, and transitioned over nearly 100 years of educational service as a junior high, high school, and finally, from 1969-89, was part of Flathead Valley Community College before they moved to their new campus up on the hill. Suffering from a lack of upkeep, the deteriorating structure was boarded up and left vacant for nearly a decade, until a tiny but dedicated band of intrepid history buffs began agitating for the City of Kalispell to spend $2.4 million in tax increment funds to fully restore Central School so the Northwest Montana Historical Society could take charge and create a museum of local history.
The new history museum opened in January of 1999 with a photographic display. Over the next 20 years, the Northwest Montana Historical Society has mounted some 110 semi-permanent and temporary rotating exhibits and displays.
What will you see if you visit today? First and foremost, out-of-area visitors and Flathead Valley residents alike will be entertained and informed by a professionally designed and constructed History of the Flathead Valley. Visitors will learn about early valley settlers, transportation (horse-drawn wagons, railroads, steamboats), early agriculture, recreation, local communities, communication, and specific historic stories about the old steel bridge, the little red dress, and the 2016 discovery, recovery, and display of artifacts from the 54-foot pleasure boat Kee-O-Mee launched in 1928 and burned and sunk eight years later 50 feet deep in Flathead Lake. The History of the Flathead Valley exhibit is a fun, efficient way to learn and orient yourself to the area you live in or are visiting.
What else will you see and learn from at the Museum at Central School? Indians of the Northwest is one of four large semi-permanent exhibits featured. Hailed by students of Indian culture and native peoples alike, this exhibit has drawn praise as one of the more authentic collections of Indian artifacts and history ever assembled in Northwest Montana. The exhibit includes tools and weapons made of bone and stone, beaded items, clothing both old and new of hide, trade cloth and muslin, toys of Indian children, and a full-size Indian tipi lodge. Educational displays tell the story of ceremonial pipes, the importance of the buffalo, the nature of native societies and religion, the use of natural ingredients for medicines, foods and paints, hide preparation, baskets, ceremonial drums, and typical camp life. Taken together these rare and diverse artifacts and stories reveal much about the Golden Age of the Indian from 1750 to 1875. This is an Indian-based exhibit of unusual authenticity not to be missed.
More wonders of local history can be gained from an exhibit on the Flathead Valley timber and logging industry, and another exhibit on valley pioneer Frank Bird Linderman. The Museum also features many smaller rotating exhibits and displays presented from time to time as historic material becomes available, and boasts a bookstore with more titles on local and Montana history than any other Northwest Montana venue.
On a personal note, I enjoyed the creative and logistical challenges of serving for 12 years as the Executive Director of the Museum at Central School and Northwest Montana Historical Society, from 2005 to 2017. A few months after retirement from the Museum I joined the Board of Directors of Citizens for a Better Flathead, bringing with it the opportunity to share this Go Local article about my former place of employment.
The Museum at Central School is now in the good hands of new Executive Director Jacob Thomas, a young museum professional, originally from a Detroit suburb with museum experience in both Michigan and Texas. He applied for this position in part because in the summer following his freshman year in college, he lived in Glacier National Park while working at the Many Glacier Hotel, and liked our area so much he returned the next two summers. On beginning the job, Jacob remarked, “I hope that my time in Kalispell will be marked by making this wonderful museum more accessible, so that we have the opportunity to grow our history like ever before, continually adding new stories and experiences, and expanding our reach into the community and region.”
The Museum offers many wonderful opportunities to learn local history, attend cultural events, benefit from a variety of volunteer opportunities, or even take advantage of utilizing two large, elegant meeting rooms available for rent at reasonable rates. The Museum at Central School is a great place – check it out.
The Museum at Central School is located at 124 Second Avenue East in Kalispell. The museum’s winter hours are 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday (open Saturdays summer only). Learn more at www.yourmuseum.org or contact them at 406-756-8381.
About the Author: Gil Jordan lives in Coram, seven miles from Glacier National Park. He serves on the Board of Directors for Citizens for a Better Flathead.Photograph provided by The Museum at Central School.