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New book takes a deep dive into history of the Polebridge Mercantile

Hungry Horse News | July 19, 2023 1:00 AM

A Polebridge Mercantile history trivia quiz:

1) Which owner was married twice during his tenure as the owner of the store?

2) Who made the first huckleberry bear claws?

3) Who first painted the store red?

4) Who named it the Polebridge Mercantile?

Those answers and many more are in North Fork author Lois Walker’s new book “The History of the Polebridge Mercantile.”

Walker said she initially didn’t set out to write a history of the iconic Mercantile, located off the grid up the North Fork Road 35 miles north of Columbia Falls, give or take.

She was recording oral histories of longtime North Forkers when she realized many folks who knew the history of the place, or had owned it, were getting up there in age, or dying altogether.

So there became a renewed urgency to write a book. Walker, an Air Force historian by profession, began work on the book about four years ago.

The story begins with founder Bill Adair, who actually established the first store and a boarding house in 1904 on the east side of the North Fork of the Flathead River in Sullivan Meadow. While it might seem like the middle of nowhere today, back then it was on the main route to Kintla Lake, where speculators had drilled wells looking for oil.

Adair operated the store for 10 years. In 1912, he filed for a homestead on the west side of the river and built a new store and cabin on 160 acres.

He opened the new store in 1914. Over the next 30 years with his first wife Jessie and second wife Emma, provided a wide range of goods for locals, miners, the Forest Service, the Park Service and a host of others.

It was not, however, called the Polebridge Mercantile. It was Adair’s Store. The store was built next to his cabin. The cabin is the Northern Lights Saloon today.

He sold it to Ben and Annette Rover in 1943 and they owned it until 1955.

They built three guest cabins south of the store and rented out Adair’s homestead cabin as well. The store and the guest cabins were called “Rover’s Ranch, Cabins and Store.”

The store was always a community hub, Walker notes. It housed a Post Office for decades, at one time had the only radio for miles and also had the first telephone.

Rover would then sell the business to Ted and Esther Ross — they ran it from 1955-1967.

Ross platted the Polebridge townsite and sold off lots to family, friends and loyal customers. He also used dynamite and a jerry-rigged dump truck to install new wells for anyone who needed one in the subdivision. It was a bit crude, but it worked, Walker notes in the book.

The next owners didn’t stay very long, Calvin and Dorothy Oien owned it from ’67-’69 before selling it to Robert and Betty Olson.

The Olsons owned it from ’69 to ’74. They were the first to paint the storefront facade a deep red. In 1974 the Olsons sold it to two couples — John and Karen Gray and Carol and Dan O’Brien.

The partnership wouldn’t last however, and John and Karen divorced, so Karen ended up with the store and later changed her last name to Feather.

The name of the store was changed from the Polebridge Store and Cabins to the Polebridge Mercantile. The entire building was now red and the iconic lettering across the storefront was put in place.

They also turned Adair’s original cabin into the Northern Lights Saloon.

With help from North Forker Dave Walter, who worked for the Montana Historical Society in Helena, the Mercantile was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1985, Feather had a mortgage-burning party that was attended by a host of friends and locals. She sold it to Chrys Landrigan who owned it from 1987-1994

In 1988 the Red Bench Fire nearly burned the entire town down, coming within just a few feet of the main building. As it was, Adair’s historic barn was lost in the blaze.

The next, and perhaps most consequential owners in the modern era were Dan and Deb Kaufman.

Dan, a trained baker, eventually started the bakery at the Merc, after he first started selling muffins he picked up from Costco, of all places.

The light went on, Walker notes in the book. Why sell Costco muffins when he could bake right here? Dan developed the now famous huckleberry bear claw, which is renowned today.

“(The Merc) wouldn’t be here today if Dan hadn’t started doing the bakery,” Walker said.

The Kaufmans made it into the community hub again, but they did close the Post Office for good after an Anthrax scare after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Kaufmans owned it from 1994 to 2009 and sold it to Flannery Coats and Stewart Reiswig. They continued to the tradition of the bakery — Flannery took lessons from Dan Kaufman — and they also upgraded to solar power for at least part of the Merc’s electrical supply.

They sold the establishment to friend Will Hammerquist and his wife Katerina in 2014. They are the current owners.

They’ve added even more solar power, shored up the north wall of the building which was starting to lean, and replaced the original hardwood floors.

Today, the Merc is an attraction unto itself, both a community hub and a place that draws tourists from across the globe.

The Merc is now in its 110th season and going strong.

Walker said since publishing the first edition, others have come forward with more details, so she said a revised edition could be in the works.

The first edition was printed locally and was a relatively short run, so printing more isn’t too much of a problem.

The book is available at the Polebridge Mercantile and on its website. It retails for $24.

Answers: 1) Bill Adair 2) Dan Kaufman 3) Robert Olson 4) Karen (Feather) Gray, John Gray, and Carol and Dan O’Brien


Adair’s Store when it was in Sullivan Meadow (Photo provided)


An aerial view of Polebridge after the Red Bench Fire of 1988. (Photo provided)