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Preserving Tradition
Gretchen besides a photo of Eva Gates. - David Vale
The early thaw and the spring rains produced a bumper crop of strawberries the summer of ’49 in Bigfork. Such a good crop that George wasn’t sure what to do with them all. Eva, of an inherently practical nature, knew exactly what to do and set about making them into preserves for her friends. Of course when those needs were satisfied, she still had the better part of the crop left. It was likely George who, munching on a slice of homemade bread slathered with strawberry preserves, hit on the idea. “You know,” he said, “we could probably sell this stuff.” And with that insight was born the Bigfork tradition, Eva Gates Homemade Preserves.

I spoke with Gretchen Gates, the fourth in a line of family members to run the enterprise, in the conference room of her cottage-like facility on Electric Avenue. She explained how the business started with strawberries, but quickly expanded to include raspberry, blackcap, spiced apple, cherry, and huckleberry preserves. “We were the first in the state to make a commercial product out of huckleberries.” she told me. “And we still make preserves just like my grandmother did. Same recipes, same small batches.

Preserves don’t taste right when you make them in big vats.”

Born in Bigfork, Gretchen left with her family when she was 11 and grew up in the Bay Area of California. Although her parents returned north the day she graduated from high school, Gretchen didn’t make it back until 1990. “I was working for an insurance company in California, but the ownership changed and I got laid off. It was pretty good timing when my sister called to ask if I’d consider moving back to Bigfork to help with the business.”

Gretchen took over the business when her sister died in 1999. Of course, being born in Montana, she was never content to just do one thing. She started by joining the Bigfork Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, and taking responsibility for the Taste of Bigfork. Then she added other responsibilities, like helping to run the annual Festival of the Arts and serving on several other boards, including the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork, the Bigfork Promotion Group, the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts Foundation, and the Flathead County Library Foundation.

I didn’t ask how old Gretchen was. Although she moves with the energy of a 30-something, I got the feeling that she may be older than that. So I asked how Bigfork had changed in the 65 years Eva Gates Preserves has been in business. “It didn’t become a tourist and art destination until sometime in the ‘70s,” she told me. “Before that, it was just a normal town. We built this building in 1993 and they built Twin Birch Square across the street about a year later. That was about the time that the rest of America discovered Montana and the roads that led to Bigfork.”

And where does she see it going? “Bigfork is just a wonderful place to live. I moved back because I like it here. I think that’s why most people move here. It’s got that natural, pioneer-like feel to it, but it also has sophistication. Look at the Theater, the galleries, the artists, the guitar festival, for example.”

“We’re physically limited on how much bigger Bigfork can get and I think that’s good. Folks who live here like the small size and understand they’ll have to forego some of the big city amenities. Chinese takeout, for example. But most of us are here because we like it. Just like it is.”

I look around the Eva Gates production facility and see a rack full of small-batch stainless pans, a sloping shelf of delivery chutes leading to a table where the jars are packed. I see a small-scale production facility, the design of which dates back to the mid twentieth century. I sense the care that Eva Gates must have sealed into every jar she sold. I recognize I’m looking at Bigfork, both past and future, in a microcosm. And I understand: Preserving traditions is important, because things made in big vats just don’t taste right.

Visit the Eva Gates facility at 456 Electric Avenue in Bigfork Village or online at www.EvaGates.com.
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