Take a virtual history tour through Montana

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The Montana Historical Society’s Explore Big website, which launched in 2017, has expanded substantially this year. The website, Explorebig.org, and free mobile app now give users instant access to nearly 1,750 stories and images about places around the state that have historical and architectural significance and cultural sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The website lists over 150 places for Kalispell alone, from the Railway Depot (now the Kalispell Area Chamber of Commerce) and Central School (now Northwest Montana History Museum) to a number of houses in the Eastside Historical District. Many of the stories are accompanied by historical photos.

There are also 20 suggested tours focusing on a specific time period such as “Early Montana,” or an industry like mining. Some of the suggested tours are localized, like the Helena West Main Street Historic District; others are statewide, such as “Railroads.”

Browsing the website, I stumbled upon a photo of Kalispell’s old Stockman’s Bar in the 200 block of Main Street. The narrative that accompanies the photo is titled “Wilson’s Cafe,” but the photo clearly shows that old giant neon grouchy longhorn steer above the door and the bar sign in frontier-style lettering facing north/south. The bar was still here when we moved to Kalispell in 1985. I believe we went in once. It was, of course, smoky, and had signs of various ranches’ cattle brands displayed on the walls.

There was a time you could find posters everywhere around town that read, “You know you’re in Montana when …” and then a list of characteristics unique to the state, such as “you’ve crossed the Missouri River three times in one day” or “the town has more bars than churches.” I recall one of them being “There’s a Stockman’s Bar downtown.”

But before it was Stockman’s Bar, the circa 1891 frontier building was a grocery store (1894-1918), then Chin Sing’s Glacier Park Restaurant (1918-1924). Alex Wilson opened his cafe on the premises, aptly renaming it Wilson’s Cafe, in 1926. According to the website narrative, Wilson had been a mess sergeant in World War I and claimed to have cooked for General Pershing in 1931. Ethel Withee took over the restaurant in 1933 and had a more modern façade designed — the building, which now houses Flair Boutique gift shop, still sports the diamond facade.

I also found the Goshorn House listed. The owner and publisher of the Inter Lake, Robert M. Goshorn, and his wife Alice were the original owners of the Queen Anne-style home. According to the website they and their two children moved into the new home at 501 Fourth Ave. E. in 1900. Seven years later their son tragically drowned in a canoeing accident and, “determined to stay busy, the Goshorns converted their weekly to a daily newspaper.” They sold the business in 1912. But, as we know, the Daily Inter Lake is still publishing a daily paper in Northwest Montana.

Although most of the homes named in Kalispell’s Eastside Historic District are listed without photos, the ExploreBig website posts photos donated by Montana Pictures, the National Register of Historic Places and from private citizens. Maybe some of you have historical photos to contribute.

The site makes it fun to learn more about the history of Montana, its colorful towns and architecture. If you find the time, you just might enjoy some armchair traveling on explorebig.org

Community Editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or community@dailyinterlake.com.

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