Though the narrow valley that holds the North Fork of the Flathead River may seem untamed, homesteaders have been occupying the area for more than a century.
The North Fork Landowners Association is working to amass, catalog and publish a vast trove of documents, photos and old news clippings that lend insight into the cultural heritage of the area. The group is also conducting and archiving oral history interviews.
The chief architect of the undertaking is Lois Walker, a career historian with the military before she retired in the North Fork with her husband. Walker said she is happy to take work with her into retirement, saying the task is a worthwhile one.
“Being interested in the history up here is really easy,” Walker said. “It’s all around you.”
Every once in a while, someone calls Walker because they just cleaned out a relative’s attic or storage shed and found boxes of documents shedding light on the time when homesteaders first began dividing up the land. The boxes usually contain old photos, property records and correspondence among residents. It’s also usually mixed in with other unrelated items, and Walker’s job is to sort through it all and find what’s valuable.
“It’s just kind of like drinking out of a fire hose,” Walker said. “It’s taking over the house.”
The size of the load varies, but Walker said it isn’t uncommon for her to get a carload of boxes dropped off at her house that take months to go through. The process is long but methodical, and always starts with a key first step.
“The first thing I do is make sure it is insect-free and mildew-free,” Walker said.
Walker then separates informative items from the rest and scans them into a digital archive. Most of the materials are kept in an outbuilding on her property. Occasionally she’ll construct an exhibit at Sondreson Community Hall, which serves as the community center of the North Fork, but the archives are otherwise hard to access for people who can’t stop by and see them.
Walker would like to change that.
“It’s my pipe dream to have a place where people can come and do research and view the archives,” Walker said.
She also hopes to eventually be able to fund a website where the vast amount of scanned documents and photos can be stored and searchable.
She said the main obstacle to both those goals is funding. The North Fork Landowners Association collects small annual dues from members, but they don’t have the budget for ongoing support of a space and website with the storage to serve their needs.
INDEPENDENT PEOPLE have been drawn to the North Fork for far longer than Walker can turn up documents. She said Native Americans who lived in the Tobacco Plains near present-day Eureka would sometimes make voyages through the area hunting bison. They would hunt, bring the bison back to camp, allow the meat to dry and then return home.
Non-indigenous explorers first made their way to the area looking for coal, oil and mineral deposits in the 1880s.
In 1893, Congress surveyed the area for two townships, though the plans were scrapped in 1897 and the areas that hadn’t been settled were designated as a forest reserve, Walker said. It wouldn’t be until 1906 that Congress lifted restrictions on settling the east side of the river and the Kalispell land office started receiving homestead claims the next year.
Today, though Walker said only 3 percent of the land in the area is privately owned, those owners have waged an elongated fight to keep the Outside North Fork Road from being paved to Polebridge in an effort to preserve some semblance of the solitude they sought when they bought property there. There is also a minimum 20-acre lot size included in area’s zoning restrictions.
The same mentality that leads residents to try to keep the crowds away leads those who own property there to band together.
“It’s a pretty close, tight-knit community,” Walker said
Homesteaders hosted community gatherings to dance, trade resources and help each other when someone was in a pinch. Walker has old photos and records of those events, and though the population has largely shifted from ranchers to retirees, those tendencies haven’t gone away.
That tight-knit community can lead to complicating factors for Walker’s work. When she was trying to collect oral histories and corroborate them with documents, the facts often wind up in the cross-hairs of big fish tales that have been passed down for many years.
“I have to tread carefully sometimes,” she said.
Much of Walker’s accounts come from the various media outlets that have covered the North Fork. Walker said the Hungry Horse News in Columbia Falls, which is now owned by the same company as the Daily Inter Lake, has been a particularly valuable source of North Fork media coverage through the years.
“I think the Hungry Horse News has always done a great job of covering the North Fork,” Walker said.
She said it has been quite common to have a permanent resident of the North Fork file regular dispatches that run in the newspaper, and resident Larry Wilson’s ongoing Hungry Horse News column is the current iteration of that.
“There has been a North Fork News in the newspaper as far back as 1915,” Walker said. “It’s a window to what was going on in the North Fork.”
Coverage in the newspaper has been valuable for the same reason the history project holds interest to those that don’t live in the North Fork, Walker said. The place is important for both those who live there and those who don’t.
“Many people in many places have a soft spot for the North Fork,” Walker said.
Walker is always looking for more material. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information can also be found on the organization’s website www.nflandowners.com/north-fork-history-project/.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or email@example.com.