On a bitterly cold winter day in 1937 a major fire struck Bigfork and changed the town forever. On January 7th the bar in the Bigfork Hotel was filled with patrons, mostly unemployed loggers and traveling salesmen, sipping beer and passing time. Hotel employees kept the wood-fired furnace as hot as possible trying to keep the drafty, wood-framed building warm against the frigid 20 below zero weather.
Some say an earthquake the summer before may have jarred the chimney out of alignment or the fire may have been too hot but a chimney fire started and the wooden building was quickly ablaze. The patrons hauled out the beer barrels which froze almost instantly. “We lost everything but the clothes on our backs,” said Kenneth O’Brien, whose parents owned the hotel. “There was no fire department back then. Neighbors brought garden hoses, but the water just froze.” Ernie and Catherine O’Brien, owners of the 10-room hotel and the adjoining dance hall, had only memories and some frozen barrels of beer as the fire burned itself out.
Times were tough in Montana in the midst of the Great Depression. The State Bank of Bigfork had closed and the bankers in Kalispell had an unwritten rule against loaning more than $l000 at a time to any Bigfork venture. It would take a strong character like Ernie O’Brien (also known as the “mayor of Bigfork” or the “Kingfish”) to secure the loan to rebuild the hotel. Yet, even he almost gave up.
This 6 ft. 4in., 240 lb. man is said to have ruled the hotel, the town, and the school system by force of personality. He refused to let any loggers come into his dance hall without a bath. He greeted them with a bar of soap and a towel, and pointed them to the hotel’s only bathroom before allowing them to dance. Ernie O’Brien was also a fierce supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and knew how to get jobs through contacts with the WPA (Works Progress Administration). That’s how many of the rock walls around Bigfork were built, including those in front of the school.
First National Bank of Kalispell finally gave Ernie O’Brien the loan he needed to rebuild the old wooden hotel. The “Mayor of Bigfork” had a vision of what Bigfork would become and wanted a Swiss chalet- style building, resembling the stunning lodges in Glacier Park. Harry Elton, then caretaker of the C.J. Kelly Estate on Swan Lake, was contracted to build the new hotel containing eighteen rooms, several bathrooms, and an apartment for the O’Brien family. Elton was paid $3 a day; the workers were paid $1 a day.
The log work was done primarily by the Fenby brothers of Swan Lake, who also hand-split the cedar shakes that are still on the building. The logs were cut when it was 20 below or more in the Swan, forever trapping frozen sap in the bark. Less than seven months after the fire the construction was completed enough for people to move in though they had to walk on planks to get to their rooms.
The hotel has always been a center of the town’s activities. It was a popular stop for salesmen and tourists. Many of the town’s schoolteachers, and even Superintendent of schools H.A. Veeder, were long-time residents of the hotel. As chairman of the school board, Ernie O’Brien subsidized school salaries by giving free or discounted room and board to school personnel.
The hotel attracted celebrities, too. Comedian Red Skeleton was a frequent summer guest. Artist Charlie Russell stayed in the hotel, too, as did Virginia Hill, the famous girlfriend of gangster Bugsey Siegel. (Hill’s room was believed to be used more as a drop-off point for money than living quarters.)
The hotel had its name changed to the Bigfork Inn in 1972. It went through several owners before Bob and Suzie Keenan bought the building in 1982. They owned and operated the Bigfork Inn from 1982-2005. During that time they developed the menu and added the library, the “red room”, the balcony, and the deck. The hotel portion was phased out as the restaurant became more popular. Suzie’s father, Fred Trapp, was instrumental in making the Bigfork Inn look like “the grand old building” that it is, with the flower boxes, wildflowers, maintenance, and various improvements. It’s interesting to note that Bob Keenan resembled Ernie O’Brien in his involvement in community and state affairs. Bob served as a state senator while owning and managing the Bigfork Inn.
The Inn sold again in the summer of 2018 and the new owners are intending to carry on the tradition of the same eclectic menu, quality food, excellent service, and value. Many folks comment that the Bigfork Inn is still the “centerpiece of the town”, and their favorite place to eat in the Flathead Valley.
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