Columbia Falls: the little city that could

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I was paging through last week’s Hungry Horse News and was impressed by the number of stories that talked about the growth and development happening in Columbia Falls these days.

One article noted the transformation of Nucleus Avenue — the town’s main drag — as the top local story of the year. If you haven’t been uptown Columbia Falls for awhile, you’ll be impressed with the new businesses that have filled in the once-vacant storefronts.

Another story reflected the commercial and residential construction underway in the city that has branded itself the “Gateway to Glacier National Park.” Building permits were up 24 percent last year. Yet another article revealed that Genesis Kitchens of Whitefish is opening an oil and vinegar store on Nucleus Avenue, and Brave Dog Knits — one of those new businesses in the heart of the city — is going great guns.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Columbia Falls because when we moved to the Flathead Valley in 1991, I got a reporting job at the Hungry Horse News just a week after we had settled in Whitefish. This was during the glory days of the Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly, in the days before the internet, when there were several reporters, a full-time photographer and an ample advertising staff to produce a 30- to 36-page paper every week.

It wasn’t an easy job. The news staff typically worked Tuesday nights and into the wee hours of Wednesday mornings to finish writing stories and lay out the pages the old-fashioned way, running the strips of copy through a hot-wax machine and pasting them manually on broad sheets of paper using light tables. Paginating pages on computers began just as I left the “Horse” for the Daily Inter Lake in mid-1995.

What I loved about my job was the people of Columbia Falls. These were hard-working, salt-of-the-earth, unpretentious people I could relate to. I remember routinely stopping by the police department before the days of any elaborate security systems and simply walking into the dispatch center, plopping myself down and visiting with the friendly dispatcher, or the police chief if he was around.

Even though the downtown was deteriorating in those days, Columbia Falls’ economy was vibrantly strong, with the aluminum plant and Plum Creek still going full bore.

Mel Ruder, the founding publisher of the Hungry Horse News, used to stop by the newspaper office almost every week, probably out of force of habit. He was long retired by then, but still wanted to know what was going on. There’s a wonderful photograph of the late, great Mel in the book, “Pictures, a Park, and a Pulitzer,” that shows him sitting on the local school gymnasium bleachers after the game is over, his camera in hand, looking somewhat weary. I always thought that photo epitomizes what it takes to run a weekly newspaper, complete dedication to the community. Mel had that.

Mel’s longtime news assistant, the late Gladys Shay, was still writing her folksy weekly column when I worked at the Hungry Horse News. Gladys was a surrogate mother to our young news staff and one year invited us all to a corned-beef and cabbage meal at her house for St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the kind of hospitality that seemed to overflow in Columbia Falls.

Some of the folks I got to know through my job have passed away, gone but not forgotten. I don’t get to Columbia Falls as often as I’d like anymore. But any time I go there, whether it’s to attend the community market at The Coop in the summer, or stop for goodies at Uptown Hearth bakery, I’m reminded that the town’s fabric is essentially still the same even though the cast of characters has changed in 28 years. They’re caring, committed people going the distance to make their town the best it can be.

Columbia Falls will always own a piece of my heart.

News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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