Museum at Central School renamed, rebranded to honor past, focus on future

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  • Exterior of the historic Central School on Monday in downtown Kalispell. The museum is changing its name to the Northwest Montana History Museum. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Central School, circa 1903

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    Jacob Thomas, the new executive director of the Museum at Central School, has stepped up into the position vacated by long-time director Gil Jordan. Jordan retired after 12 years. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    A three-ring binder contains all of the articles and opinions that were stirred up in March of 1997 as Kalispell debated the decision to save the historic Central School or not. In that binder is this copy of an opinion page from the Daily Inter Lake that ran on March 28, 1997. The museum staff counted the opinions for and against and came out to 27 for (marked with a blue check) and 26 against, showing how evenly divided the residents were on this issue.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    A watercolor rendition of the Central School building by artist Vernon L Wyman.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    The north wall near the welcome desk at the museum has a number of items on display related to saving the school including this photograph of the five people who voted to save the building. The vote was a 5 to 4 split.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Exterior of the historic Central School on Monday in downtown Kalispell. The museum is changing its name to the Northwest Montana History Museum. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

  • 2

    Central School, circa 1903

  • 3

    Jacob Thomas, the new executive director of the Museum at Central School, has stepped up into the position vacated by long-time director Gil Jordan. Jordan retired after 12 years. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 4

    A three-ring binder contains all of the articles and opinions that were stirred up in March of 1997 as Kalispell debated the decision to save the historic Central School or not. In that binder is this copy of an opinion page from the Daily Inter Lake that ran on March 28, 1997. The museum staff counted the opinions for and against and came out to 27 for (marked with a blue check) and 26 against, showing how evenly divided the residents were on this issue.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 5

    A watercolor rendition of the Central School building by artist Vernon L Wyman.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 6

    The north wall near the welcome desk at the museum has a number of items on display related to saving the school including this photograph of the five people who voted to save the building. The vote was a 5 to 4 split.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Back in 1997, the Daily Inter Lake sponsored a call line called “Your Call” where readers could phone in their responses to certain questions of public interest.

One of the questions was: “Should the city of Kalispell spend $2.5 million in tax dollars to renovate old Central School for use as a museum?”

According to the article, the Inter Lake was inundated with responses.

Some suggested the building or its property would be better put to other uses such as a community center for youth, a skateboard park, or even a parking lot.

Some were all for it as a “highly good idea” that would draw tourists and the building should be “preserved for posterity.”

Some flat out said it was a waste of taxpayer money.

Reportedly, former Kalispell Mayor Doug Rauthe (who had attended Central School) vowed to chain himself to the building before he would allow it to be torn down.

Ultimately, the city of Kalispell made the decision to invest in the museum. And in doing so, it wisely invested in both the community’s past and its future.

The Museum at Central School has been part of the downtown district for 20 years now. It has preserved the history of Northwest Montana in more than 100 permanent and rotating exhibits, houses and protects over 50,000 local artifacts, including an extensive collection of authentic American Indian artifacts, and supports local education through guided field trips, lecture series and its 1895 Classroom Experience for all district third-graders.

Today, the museum is poised to rebrand itself with a new name. Beginning Sept. 19, the Museum at Central School will become the Northwest Montana History Museum.

According to the museum’s Executive Director Jacob Thomas, the new branding is being adopted to reach a broader audience.

“In the last 30 years the local population has doubled,” Thomas said. “It’s a sad fact, the passage of time and the continued growth of the Flathead Valley means there are too few people that know this remarkable story. It’s our job to change that, and the first step is getting people through the doors.”

Thomas sees the museum’s role in the community is to tell that story so residents don’t forget where they came from and so their history will be remembered.

He points out that the Flathead Valley was the last place in the Lower 48 to be settled, in large part due to the surrounding mountains and immense Flathead Lake, which beset settlers with many challenges to carving out a home and livelihood here.

Built in 1894, Central School was the first public building in town. It last held classes in 1989 as part of Flathead Valley Community College.

“It was the first building to have hot water, electricity and plumbing,” Thomas said.

It also remains the tallest and biggest building in town. Its grand three stories feature classic 19th century Richardsonian Romanesque thick masonry, Roman arches and rounded towers. Most of the building’s original hardwood floors, wainscoting and tin-plate ceilings are still in place.

One of Kalispell’s most impressive historic buildings, Central School has been beautifully preserved, now serving the community as the largest museum in Northwest Montana and yet, “Too often, people who are in town visiting don’t know our mission, the content of its galleries … or, if we even have galleries.” Thomas said. “The new name shows that we are indeed a history museum and are so much more than a schoolhouse.

“Central School (the building itself) remains the centerpiece of this museum’s collection and the museum’s home,” he said.

The Northwest Montana History Museum’s new logo, designed by Flathead Valley Community College professor Amber Lawrence’s Desktop Publishing class in the fall 2018 semester, depicts the iconic features of the Flathead Valley. Alli Gagnon’s design highlights the region’s rich agricultural history rising to the dramatic summit symbolic of Northwest Montana’s towering peaks. Gagnon, who now works for SnowGhost Design in Kalispell, designed it to call to mind the fur trade that opened the Flathead Valley to settlement. The colors and pattern are also familiar to both Northwest Montana and Glacier National Park.

Thomas is excited about the new branding, the new website that goes live Sept. 19, and the new possibilities for the museum. He is confident a fresh perspective will bring people, both locals who have never explored its galleries along with visitors to the area in the museum’s doors. The Detroit native who says ever since he was a kid he’d always wanted to work for a museum holds a master’s degree in museum studies took the museum’s helm in 2017 and is only the third executive director in the museum’s 20 years, replacing Gil Jordan upon his retirement after serving 13 years and, before him, Bill Peterson, who was the museum’s first director and served six years. Thomas’ dynamic philosophy of regularly rotating in fresh exhibits, expanding community outreach and pursuing public events held on the premises promises to launch the Northwest Montana History Museum into its next 20 years.

“It’s important to remember, to look back and see where we came from, how we’ve changed over time and what led us to where we are today,” Thomas said. “It is the story of Northwest Montana — it’s our job is to tell that story.”

Entertainment Editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or thisweek@dailyinterlake.com.

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