A collection of firearms that belonged to Kalispell founder Charles E. Conrad have returned home, and are the focus of an exhibit at the Conrad Mansion this weekend.
Two firearms experts and enthusiasts, Philip Schreier, a senior curator for the National Rifle Association, and Garry James, senior editor for Guns & Ammo magazine, met Wednesday at the mansion to collaborate for their presentation at the Charles E. Conrad Family Firearms exhibit this weekend.
“This helps complete the story of who Conrad was,” Schreier said. “Seeing this house without these guns is just like going to Jay Leno’s house without seeing his cars.”
“It’s part of the story of Conrad Mansion and Kalispell as a town,” James commented.
The presentations at Conrad Mansion Museum on Friday and Saturday will display 18 guns recently returned to their Kalispell owner’s former estate. The collection includes a Spanish Mauser rifle, manufactured between 1893 and 1916, an 1860 .44 caliber Henry repeating rifle and a 1863 Burnside percussion carbine.
“One of the fun things about the Conrad collection is we have a real wide variety of guns,” Schreier said. “The Henry rifle was a cornerstone of a new industry.”
Each firearm is like a window into the time period in which it was manufactured. Several guns on display mark the transition from muzzle loading to what’s called a self-contained metallic cartridge, closer to the round model seen today.
When thinking about the Industrial Revolution, people tend to focus on steam engines, but it was really the mechanization of manufacturing firearms that can be pinpointed as a beginning phase, Schreier explained.
The collection may be worth about $350,000. That’s an appraisal without considering who these guns belonged to, Schreier said, as each gun’s value is lifted with the recognition of whose name may be scratched into the stock.
The name Walterwith is etched into the Spanish Mauser. He was a laborer from Kalispell and brought the firearm back from the Philippines.
James was involved in the effort to bring the firearms collection, which has been housed at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, back to Kalispell. Through an agreement with the Conrad Mansion, the historical society retained two of the guns in Conrad’s collection.
James, a Whitefish resident, was able to top off the collection with the same two guns from his own collection.
“It’s taken a few years just to get them here and put the collection together,” James said. “We would have gotten them here sooner if we could.”
When Conrad died in 1902, his widow, Alicia, gifted the firearms to a Main Street hardware store owner, Samuel E. Johns, in 1918. Johns’ interest in guns grew from that generous gift, and over the next 20 years he accumulated a collection of 700 firearms, which included the Conrad collection. He displayed the collection in the hardware store. Some were for sale but other models were simply for show.
When Johns died, he left the entire collection to his son, S. Douglas Johns, who delivered the 700 firearms to the Montana Historical Society in 1959, to help secure the collection in Montana history.
The Conrad Mansion staff had always wondered where Conrad’s guns ended up, believing they might have been liquidated before Conrad’s widow died.
On a non-related trip to the Montana Historical Society, a Conrad Mansion staff member recognized Conrad’s name on the label below several of the rifles on display. After a few years of negotiating with the historical society, the prized firearms now fill the display cases and polished bison horn gun rack on the third floor of Kalispell’s most famous home.
“For the staff, it’s just thrilling that these firearms have come home,” said Mary Miers, director of marketing at the Conrad Mansion Museum. “This is where they started.”
Reporter Seaborn Larson may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few photos from the Johns Hardware Store can be found in the third floor Sky Office of the Conrad Mansion. The hardware store served as a display for 700 guns, including Conrad's 18 personal firearms, for nearly 40 years before S. Douglas Johns delivered the collection to the Montana HIstorical Society in 1959. (Seaborn Larson)