Once in a while on your travels, you find a secret gem known only to locals. Here’s one of those gems worth visiting in Kalispell, Montana, on the way to Glacier National Park. The perfectly preserved home and garden of Kalispell founder, Charles E. Conrad, is open to the public and will surprise you with the rare opportunity to step into the life of a successful pioneer in 1895.
In 1868, Charles Conrad and his brother came west to seek a new future after their family plantation was destroyed in the Civil War. They arrived in Fort Benton in Montana Territory with one silver dollar in their pocket, and with honesty, organizational skills and hard work, built a business based on riverboat shipping and trading posts throughout the Northwest and Canada. Conrad learned the native languages and was highly respected by area tribal leaders. After selling their trading business in 1891, the Conrads expanded into diverse fields of mining, banking and ranching.
Charles Conrad and his wife, Alicia, fell in love with the Flathead Valley of Montana during a stop there in 1890, and decided to make it their home. He founded the town of Kalispell, named for the original tribe that had been called “Flatheads” by Lewis and Clark. They purchased 72 wooded acres on which to build a new home, choosing Spokane architect Kirkland Cutter to design the Shingle-style mansion.
Cutter’s design accurately reflected the character and lifestyle of the Conrads — rugged pioneers of their time who set their own course and wisely explored every opportunity offered to them in the expanding Northwest.
Their three-story rambling home mirrored their appreciation of the land and the ingenuity of those who occupied it. Grand, yet unpretentious and welcoming, the 26-room mansion maintained an air of coziness through the use of wood interiors, quaint conversation nooks and eight sandstone fireplaces. Every room was designed with the needs of the occupants in mind, including the two ground floor rooms for the Conrads’ mothers with nearby built-in mailboxes for notes from the grandchildren.
The latest innovations of conveniences way ahead of their time were incorporated throughout, including an elevator for the household help, wiring for electricity in the gas lamps, drinking fountains cooled by blocks of ice, heated clothes drying racks and an intercom system.
The best part of the story is that the home today contains 90 percent of its original furnishings and contents. This is due to the fact that the youngest Conrad daughter, Alicia Conrad Campbell, lived in the house her entire life and did not change or remodel it. She saved everything and never threw anything away.
This tendency was a blessing in disguise, for when she gifted the overgrown and rundown property to the city in 1974 as a memorial to her parents, local resident historians discovered that hiding under her lifelong collection of “stuff” were most of the 1895 family possessions.
Outside, restoration of the grounds began in 1976 as a gift by local geologist and amateur landscape architect, Louis A. “Sam” Bibler. He had been instrumental in saving the Conrad house for future generations.
First, crews removed hundreds of overgrown trees and chokecherries with trunks up to 14 inches thick. Using old photos and stones from original walkways as clues, he personally restored the gardens to their former elegance, under the canopy of the original trees — silver maple, mountain ash, ponderosa and white pines. He found wild roses, lilac, peonies and iris from the early days, and replanted tulips, daffodils, annual borders and hedges.
For the visitor, the home and grounds communicate an era of the bold pioneering spirit, masculine inventiveness and a benevolent feminine hospitality that embraced an entire community. The Conrad mansion allows the visitor one of the most authentic views into the life of a self-made man and his family in the “Gilded Age” of the American West.