The Transformation of Polson

Lake Co Polson courthouse 1935 New deal 1

Polson is the county seat of Lake County, a town that when I visited as part of the state historic preservation plan survey in 1984 had experienced a bit of recent growth, inching closer to 2800 residents after a 20 year period of being in the mid-2000s.  In all, a typical small town Montana county seat, complete with the New Deal era courthouse, c. 1935,

designed in an understated Art Deco style by architect Fred Brinkman. The solid condition and conservation of this landmark was good to see in 2015, as well as the continuation of one of the state’s great roadside architecture landmarks, Burgerville, on U.S. Highway 93 south of the commercial core.

Lake Co Polson BurgervilleBut in the last 30 years, Polson has boomed as a lakeside resort town, with a population of 4700 today compared to the 2800 of the 1980s.  Key landmarks remain but nothing has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since my 1984 visit, even the great New Deal modern courthouse above.

As the collage above shows, the town has historic buildings still serving the community after 100 years of history, with historic businesses, homes, the town gymnasium, and churches among those landmarks.  The Flathead-Poison Historical Museum has operated since the 1960s.  The gymnasium has been a community center for recreation and sports since the mid-20th century.

Lake Co Polson gym


Certainly I have my favorites such as the flashy Art Deco style of the Beacon Tire and Garage on the old highway 93 route and especially the historic grandstand of the Lake County Fairgrounds on the outskirts of Polson.

Lake Co Polson fairgrounds 2

img_8685These landmarks need to be treasured because a new Polson is emerging all around town–and could crowd out the places that frame the community’s identity.  Right now there is a balance between old and new, but a tipping point is around the corner.

Those who crowd the farmers market in downtown during the warm weeks of the year need to realize how fragile that small town feel and landscape can be today.

Lake Co Polson farmers market





Flathead Lake Landscapes

Lake County, Montana, easy, right?  It’s all about the lake, the Flathead Lake.  It is a lot about the lake, but not a simple story but one that is ancient and 20th century, and one that has changed quickly in the last 30 years.  When I first visited the county in the early 1980s, our concern as preservationists was the boom that engulfed Lake County in the 1970s, a decade when the population grew by over 30% after being fairly stable for the 30

years before that. Lakeside communities had boomed, with the actual town of Lakeside just north of Lake County in Flathead County being a good example of what was going on then, and what has happened after 30 more years of growth. The historic church on U.S. Highway 93 remains as a landmark, along with the roadside Homestead Cafe, which didn’t exist when I was last here in 1985 but was established four years later.  That makes it almost historic in Lakeside terms.

IMG_8661There is a new school and a really different lakefront of businesses, homes, and parks. The town’s population was over 1600 in 2010; it’s now 2700 and counting.

Let’s jump back from Flathead County to Lake County and the southern half of Flathead Lake.  Here the west side is not so booming.  The Big Arm community has restored its historic one-room school, an excellent example of the type with its band of windows,


which is listed in the National Register and uses it as a community and heritage center.  Here is one rural school not threatened with abandonment and decay.  The Dayton school

shows significant expansion since my last visit–although the historic core is still apparent.  Both towns have lovely views of the lake but have not experienced the boom of Lakeside located farther north on the west side of Flathead Lake.

Lake Co Dayton flathead lakeTo get the full meaning of Flathead Lake, however, you have to consider the lake’s deep time, and its long history with the Salish and Kootenai peoples.  When I surveyed the county in 1984-1985, you came away impressed with the different vision that the tribes had for the region, and what was already happened at Pablo. In 2014, however, I left Lake County was a deeper impression on what the tribes have meant to the lake and vice versa.

IMG_7962The People’s Center at Pablo is part of that lesson as it affords a powerful, lasting introduction to both the history and continuation of tribal traditions.   

lmage from Ft Connah Restoration Society

Then there is the site of Fort Connah south of Ronan on US Highway 93. Here is  1846 log building, part of a Hudson  Bay Company post that operated to 1872.  

Perhaps just as important are the signs along U.S. Highway 93–they weren’t there 30 years ago, and they help today to imprint the region with the names used by the tribes to describe these beautiful, historic places.



Then there are the wildlife crossings, a design ensuring safety in the eyes of the Montana Department of Transportation, an engineered structure design to show dignity and respect to the animals who were here long before the people in the eyes of the Salish and Kootenai.

Lake Co US 93 animal bridge

These structures, some grand, some you might not even notice, are major changes to the roadsides of Montana.  And you want to see more.Lake Co Pablo elevated walkway 3

Not that the tribes did not make an imprint on the landscapes of Lake County–they were everywhere.  But now with structures like the elevated walkway at Pablo, their physical imprint can’t be missed by residents, and especially tourists.  That is one of the best developments in the Montana landscape over the last 30 years.

Lake Co Pablo elevated walkway 1 – Version 2