Flathead County’s Many Transformations

img_8057By the late 1980s there was little doubt that a substantial development boom was underway in Flathead County.  In the town near the Flathead Lake, like Bigfork, above, the boom dramatically altered both the density and look of the town.  In the northern half of the county Whitefish suddenly became a sky resort center.  In 1988, during a return visit to Montana, I did not like what I encountered in Flathead County–and thus I stayed away for the next 27 years years, until the early summer of 2015.

Bigfork had changed the most, and was almost unrecognizable to me, only the town plan having some semblance of historic feeling.  Its population had jumped by 200% between 2000 and 2010, and what I recalled as a lakeside village of several hundred was now a large Montana town of over 4,000 residents.

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On the other hand, Somers (1901) is not as changed and older buildings both in use and abandoned speak to its history.  Located on the northwest corner of the lake, it began as a railroad town, a link on the Great Northern Railway spur to Kalispell.  The railroad also supported a large sawmill here, which drove the local economy for decades.  Its closure at the mid-20th century brought change to Somers, one that continues today with the general patterns of growth and development in the lakeside area. One of the largest changes in Somers is the 2015 creation of its railroad heritage center, which also serves as the gateway to a rails to trails project that connects different areas, and railroad corridors, in Flathead County. The heritage center effectively interprets the town’s logging history.

Dell’s Bar is another Somers’ landmark, the type of community tavern/cafe that characterizes small town life in Montana.  Retaining these types of community centers will be crucial to the region’s sense of place and identity in a rapidly changing demographic reality.

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This southern part of Flathead County, between the lake and the sprawl of Kalispell, still has numerous ranches, beautiful working landscapes that deserve special consideration for agriculture was the heart of the Flathead Valley’s history.  Emblematic of that are historic rural institutions, such as the school at Creston and the nearby Eastside Grange.

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