Located 25 miles north of Columbia Falls, MT along the western border of Glacier National Park, Polebridge and The Polebridge Mercantile, called The Merc, give you a glimpse of life of years gone by. The population of Polebridge is no more than 100 and that’s during the high season of the summer. Don’t expect the usual amenities during your visit to Polebridge as any place you find with electricity is making their own either with a propane or diesel generator, or solar panels, or possible even a water wheel.
And phone service?? Don’t expect to use your smart phone. Cell phone service is non-existent and if you’re lucky enough you might find a place that’s close enough to the Polebridge Ranger Station located inside Glacier Park with land line service. Yes, land line service comes from a phone line laying on the bottom of the North Fork of the Flathead River connecting a few places in Polebridge to the rest of the world via phone service. And, you will actually find a pay phone just outside The Merc – yup a real live working pay phone.
How about plumbing?? Get used to the facilities or lack there of. Yes, the only public bathroom in Polebridge is a 2 unit outhouse – one for men and one for women. But they do provide hand sanitizer.
And heat??? Well be prepared to spend some time gathering firewood. We always say gathering your own firewood heats you three times – once when you cut and gather it, once when you split it, and then again when you burn it. But on the bright side there’s nothing like wood heat – it’s the best.
So how did Polebridge, a town located in one of the most remote places in the lower 48 states, come to be. Settlement in the area started in the late 1800’s. Rumors of gold created a minor gold rush when a gold nugget was found in a quartz outcrop in the Quartz Lake area. But no quantity of gold was discovered beyond that. And then there was the discovery of coal in the Coal Creek area. But the quality of the coal was poor so that was short lived. Some of the coal miners cleared some of the mining cabins and tried to ranch but due to poor range and severe winters the ranches were soon abandoned. An oil seepage was reported near the head of Kintla Lake which created a minor oil rush. But do to the difficulties to drill in this area, this prospect was abandoned also.
Some of the folks that arrived during these rushes stayed on and set up settlements in the meadows both on the east and west side of the North Fork River – now the western boundary of Glacier National Park. They lived off the land – hunting, trapping, farming, and picking up the occasional quick income job when it came along.
One noted settler was William “Bill” Adair. He originally settled on the east side of the North Fork River in 1895. He established a general store and hotel on land he leased. It was a 2½ story log structure with living quarters for the Adairs, four bedrooms, and a large dining room to accommodate travelers venturing up the North Fork.
In 1901, a road was constructed on the east side of the North Fork River starting at Belton. They called this road the North Fork Truck Trail. This road made access to the North Fork area easier. It was a narrow path, one track, cut through the forest over rocks, stumps, tree roots, and chuck holes with corduroy bridges – logs laid down across wet meadows so wagons could cross and not sink in the mud. River crossings to the west side were at the Hinshaw ford across from Akokola Creek and the ford at the Quartz Creek outlet.
The Forest Homestead Act of 1906 provided the opportunity for settlers in this area to acquire 160 acre plots to establish permanent settlements on both sides of the North Fork River. Many settlers took advantage of the Homestead Act and by 1910 when Glacier National Park was established there were 14 homestead claims on the west side of the North Fork River and 44 homestead claims on the east side of the North Fork River.
After Glacier National Park was established, homesteading inside the Park was very limited and some of the homestead claims were relinquished right away. These claims became known as inholders. An early Park policy was not to bother these homesteaders but that would change over the years. These homesteaders petitioned the Park Administration to exclude this North Fork area of the Park from being part of the Park but the government was unreceptive to this idea. So many of these inholders relinquished their homestead claims and moved to the west side of the North Fork River.
Most of the homesteaders were hunters and trappers and worked seasonal jobs with the Park Service and National Forest Service. These jobs consisted of being cooks, fire lookouts, forest fire fighters, and packers. One homesteader, Kid Fredericks, a former prize fighter, built a log gymnasium and ran a boxing camp for local youth hopefuls. And another homesteader, George Grubb (originally from Texas), added log cabin building and bootlegging to supplement his trapping income.
In 1913, a 400′ pole bridge was constructed by the homesteaders over the North Fork River; however, it only lasted one season. The pole bridge was rebuilt in 1916 by Flathead County. Construction of a road on the west side of the North Fork River began in 1913 and was completed in 1915. The completion of this road led to more homesteading claims on the west side of the North Fork River.
Bill Adair’s land lease inside Glacier Park came up for bid in the early 1900’s and he was outbid. So he filed a homestead claim on the west side of the North Fork River and built his homestead cabin on his claim where he lived with his family. In 1914 with help from community members, he built a mercantile known as Adair’s. His wives (his first wife died and he married again) ran the store while he fished, drank, and grew giant cabbage.
A half mile north of Adair’s Mercantile towards the Glacier Park entrance, Ben Hensen Sr built another store in 1920 as he thought Adair’s prices were outrageous. He won the post office contract and his wife submitted to name their store and post office Polebridge and it was accepted. During the Depression, he closed his store and the Polebridge post office moved to Adair’s.
Adair’s Mercantile was more than a supply store, grocer, and post office, it was the community meeting place. It was where homesteaders in the area would stop to eat on their all day trip to Belton (now West Glacier). Adair owned the store until just after WWII. Ben Rover purchased it in 1943 and operated it for several years.
Adair’s original homestead cabin served as the residence for owners of the store until the early 1950’s when living quarters were built above the Polebridge Mercantile. It was then a rental cabin until 1976 when it was converted into a restaurant now called the Northern Lights Saloon & Cafe.
Adair’s original homestead had 3 other buildings on it – an ice-house, a shop, and a barn. The barn burned to the ground during the Red Bench Fire of 1988. The buildings on Adair’s homestead make up the W. L. Adair General Mercantile Historic District and was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1986. Inside, The Merc still bears the hand-hewed logs by Bill Adair.
The Polebridge Mercantile, or known as The Merc, was purchased by Dan Kaufman in 1991, a third generation baker from Idaho. He established a bakery in The Merc which is now the feature of the Polebridge Mercantile. After 15 years, Dan sold The Merc but the legacy of his recipes has lived on through subsequent owners. It is currently owned by a Kalispell, MT native, Will Hammerquist, and the unique bakery still exists.
The bakery produces many different kind of pastries – both breakfast sweet rolls and lunch savory rolls. They also have a wide variety of cookies, bars, and desserts. A very unique experience indeed.
The town of Polebridge now consists of a few year around residents and but mostly summer only residents. The Polebridge Mercantile and the Northern Lights Saloon & Cafe still remain the social center of the community. Besides the many hikers, campers, and visitors to Glacier National Park that visit Polebridge each summer, the town has a couple of noted annual events.
One of these events is the 4th of July Parade through town passing right in front of the Polebridge Mercantile. It is a parade like you’ve never experienced before. They also host the Root Beer Classic Dog Sled Race in March – snow permitting. It’s referred to as our local Montana Iditarod. You can enter 12 dog teams, up to 6 dog teams, and up to 4 dog teams. It a fun event with the winning prize of a bottle of Root Beer.
So during your visit to Glacier National Park, plan a trip to Polebridge. It will be an experience you’ll not soon forget.
Sources: Connecting Us To The Sun, Volume 3 by Sharon Midkiff Randolph and polebridgemerc.com/history
Smoky Bear Ranch