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This Historic Lodge is a Diamond in the Rough

Montana's recently restored Kootenai Lodge recalls a rich heritage.

Written by Roland Sweet
Photography by Roger Wade


Most people know of the Great Camps of the Adirondacks. These summer playhouses of wealthy Easterners were wilderness getaways offering high-style roughing it. Tycoons didn’t flaunt their wealth just in the East, though. The Adirondacks camps inspired grand lodges in the West. One belonged to copper barons Lewis Orvis Evans and Cornelius “Con” Kelley, who bought 127 acres on the north end of Montana’s Swan Lake. They built a small hunting-fishing camp that grew to become an elite retreat. Its centerpiece was Kootenai Lodge.

Swan Lake sits at the south end of Flathead Valley, a vacation destination anchored by Glacier National Park to the north and Flathead Lake to the south. Although homes, cabins and campgrounds lie along its shores, Swan Lake is surrounded by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and Flathead National Forest.

The wilderness setting is pretty much the way it looked in 1919 when Evans and Kelley decided to build their lodge. Today, the lodge might look even better than when it was new, thanks to an extensive restoration effort aimed at rescuing the lodge and surrounding log homes and outbuildings. Its stickler-for-authenticity owner is also building new cabins in the original style to create a log-home community.

Kootenai Lodge is the development’s centerpiece, serving as a gathering place for homeowners, just as it did when the Evans and Kelley families were there. Architect Kirtland Cutter designed the 14,000-square-foot lodge in the Adirondacks tradition of using natural materials for buildings intended to harmonize with their setting. Cutter previously designed an Adirondacks Great Camp for the Carnegie family and had just finished Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park when Evans hired him.

The lodge took a dozen years to build. It used unpeeled larch logs for walls and western red cedar for trim. Ceilings in the main entertainment area soar to 30 feet. Two wings along the building’s eastern side contained six bedrooms, each with individual fireplaces. The Kootenai may have looked rustic, but the lifestyle definitely wasn’t. Seventy people worked on the estate. Five power mowers groomed 32 acres of lawn. Gardeners grew 900 geraniums to decorate the rock patios each summer, while others cared for Mary Kelley’s showplace rose garden. Three men worked full time in the 31-stall horse barn. Up to 60 tons of ice were harvested each winter and kept in sawdust to provide ice for summer-evening cocktails. Sixty cords of wood fueled the hot-water plant. Dinners were formal affairs with silver, Wedgwood china and fine wines served in Steuben crystal. With Prohibition on the horizon, Kelley and Evans stockpiled a large supply of liquor. When that ran out, they hired a bootlegger to keep the cellar supplied.

Among the Kootenai’s celebrated guests were Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, industrialist John D. Rockefeller, aviator Charles Lindbergh, movie star Jane Wyatt, tenor John McCormack, humorist Will Rogers and cowboy artist Charles Russell, who could not resist making more than a dozen sketches in the wet cement poured for the new lodge’s courtyard.

The cabins around the lodge were spacious, built of logs, with stone fireplaces and the most modern of conveniences. Evans stayed in his own cabin and used the lodge for dining. Kelley added cabins for his five daughters after they married. During the summer, Kelley and Evans ran Anaconda Copper from an office cabin on the estate where a wall map read “The United States of Anaconda.”

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The estate eventually grew to 2,700 acres. Kelley’s family owned the property until 1956, then sold it to the Brekkeflat family. Stoltze Lumber Co. bought it in 1968, cut down and sold the timber, then subdivided most of the acreage into building lots. The remaining 42 acres passed through several owners, including a time-share group. In 1990, Mark and Debi Rolfing bought the property as a family retreat. They did some renovation but couldn’t afford the upkeep and sold to the Milhous Group in 2005.

Paul Milhous, renowned for his historical preservation, bought the estate because he owned property directly across the lake, treasured the view of the old lodge and wanted to preserve it — in its original condition. He brought together the finest local craftsmen and challenged them “to produce the signature work of your careers — to create a true legacy.”

Working from original blueprints, the crew began by jacking up the lodge to pour new footings and a level foundation, and to replace rotting timbers. The log exterior was returned to its natural finish. Inside, masons and carpenters carefully restored, replaced and renovated every inch of the lodge. The final touch was restoring more than 20 original animal mounts and returning them to their places on the walls. The project took a year to complete.

Warren Sheets Design handled the interiors, including locating period-true finishes and materials. Sheets and Sharon Regan are furnishing the restored and new cabins for Kootenai Estates.

Of the 42 four- and five-bedroom cabin homes planned for the community, nine are restorations; 33 new cabins will echo their style. All will feature hardwood floors, wide hearths and rock fireplaces, high open ceilings of raw timber beams and spacious decks with stone fire pits. A number of designs are available, but all exteriors will be crafted using stone, larch, cedar and pine.

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The 42-acre property includes 2,400 feet of lake and river waterfront, and a marina with a community dock. Besides living in log homes in beautiful country, estate residents share the Kootenai Lodge and the feeling of stepping back in time.

If you go:

Historical tours of the Kootenai Lodge are offered every Wednesday during summer from 1 to 3 p.m.
Call 406-837-3000.
The Lodge may be reserved for private functions, including weddings and family reunions. Its state-of-the-art catering kitchen can serve up to 250 guests
For more information, visit thekootenai.com