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First Presbyterian Church
Photo by Jaix Chaix
The unmissable landmark First Presbyterian Church, at 524 Main St. in Kalispell, is part of the Kalispell Courthouse Historic District. While this says little about the notion of “a separation of church and state,” it does say a lot about one of Kalispell’s unique neighborhoods – a neighborhood that by design focused around the courthouse and included the church, which were both considered an integral part of the community.

And no matter your devotion or denomination, appreciating this landmark requires a bit of understanding of religion and early local history.

Reverend George M. Fisher first came to Montana in 1882. He preached the first sermon in this area of Missoula County in 1886 (which became Flathead County in 1893). Reverend Fisher also established the first Presbyterian congregation in Kalispell in 1891.

For some perspective, this was a time when Lakeside was known as Chautauqua – a nod to the religious/education revivals held there (the first of which were held in Chautauqua, New York).

It was a time when the “Kalispel” (yes, it was originally spelled with only one “l”) could be heard spoken in Salish “qlispél.”

It was also a time when “muck” was an endearing way to describe the thoroughfares in the barely laid town site. And the “more established” places of business had boarded “sidewalks” out front – just like the ones in Demersville (when Demersville was not only still a place, but “the place” to which other towns like Kalispell were compared).

It was against this backdrop that Reverend Fisher and his congregation built the first church in Kalispell. It would be the first church with a steeple bell to toll in the Flathead Valley. That same bell (a model #48 built by the Cincinnati Bell Foundry Company) no longer hangs in the steeple, but stands in front of the church today. It’s a rare piece of local history you can still touch and admire along Main Street.

As Kalispell boomed, so did the need for a larger church. Fortunately, in retrospect, the church did not follow through with its original plan to rebuild in 1904.

It did, however, follow through in 1925, along with tremendous community support and a bold new source of inspiration. In the time between 1904 and 1925, railroad tycoon James J. Hill and his Great Northern Railway established and built “an architecturally cohesive” railroad tourist destination nearby: Glacier National Park.

Even before the bill establishing Glacier National Park was passed, Hill implored wealthy, patriotic Americans to visit the “American Alps” and “See America First” and deplored any notion of them going abroad to the Swiss Alps instead.

For Hill, the area of Glacier National Park was the “American Alps” and he insisted on all the buildings looking the same. Hill found inspiration in the Swiss Chalet style of the Swiss Alps, but also in the Forestry Building at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Ore.

This Swiss-Chalet-meets-massive-pioneer-log-style of the buildings in Glacier National Park were the source of inspiration for architect Fred Brinkman, who designed this landmark church, and other homes in a similar Tudor-Revival style in Kalispell.

Brinkman’s designs were realized in 1925 – with many similarities to the hotels and chalets in Glacier National Park – including the log rafters, decorative half-timbering, river rock masonry, clapboard siding, and other elements, better seen than written about.

And perhaps in marking the end of one era, and the beginning of another, Reverend Fisher dedicated this church and center to the community in 1927 – a place that has since provided inspiration, in more ways than one.

Jaix Chaix is a writer who appreciates history and architecture. You can share ideas and historical facts with him at landmarks@flatheadbeacon.com. Also visit facebook.com/flatheadvalleylandmarks
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