Lisa Schwantes and roughly a dozen of her daredevil young friends hopped a train that summer day and rode a boxcar from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Whitefish.
Schwantes, 19 years old at the time, remembers sitting in an open boxcar door, her feet dangling, as the train passed the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and the sun began to climb the soaring peaks that loomed across the river.
She and her friends spent two weeks backpacking in Glacier National Park. Schwantes felt smitten.
Years later, in 1979, she tapped this adventurous spirit and bought a retail jewelry store in downtown Kalispell. She had no business background and precious little knowledge about gems.
In the years that followed, she began traveling to Antwerp, Belgium, to select diamonds for the store, equipped with her own jeweler’s loupe and tweezers.
Now, Lisa Schwantes Anderson, 66, is in the midst of a going-out-of-business sale at Wheeler Jewelry, 139 Main St.
Anderson said she has mixed feelings about the closing, which she attributes primarily to wanting to spend more time with her husband and family and to health challenges tied to rheumatoid arthritis.
“You can’t do anything for 40 years and not miss it,” she said. “Some of my dearest friends were my customers first.”
Anderson added, “But I am also looking forward to it. I have two grandchildren I’m going to be able to see more and color with. I’m really, really thankful for that.”
The jewelry business traces its roots in downtown to 1908. Anderson said D.A. Stocking ordered handcrafted display cases for his jewelry business. The cases traveled from Wisconsin by river steamer to Fort Benton and then made their way to Kalispell.
Wheeler Jewelry still uses Stocking’s display cases.
Anderson said Stocking eventually sold his business to Henry Gayhardt, who later sold it to Frank and Jane Wheeler.
When Anderson and her husband at the time purchased the store, they decided to keep the Wheeler name because the business had a good reputation in the region.
Anderson said understanding the business took time.
“I made tons of mistakes I had to learn from,” she said. “One of the hardest things in the world is to not get over-inventoried. You buy something nobody likes and what do you do? You can’t eat it.”
Anderson, a graduate of the University of Montana, had worked for a time in social work, a career she said helped her learn to be compassionate and nonjudgmental.
One day, soon after Anderson acquired Wheeler Jewelry, a rancher entered the store wearing mud-covered rubber boots and looking a bit disheveled.
Anderson said she gave the man her full attention. He ended up buying a sapphire ring valued then at $775.
“I didn’t feel like my customers had to be of a certain type or certain status,” she said. “The biggest thing is to try to make someone feel at home. We’re not going to try to make them buy more than they want.”
Anderson also recalled a young man who purchased a small engagement ring on layaway. He paid off the ring and planned to propose on Christmas Eve.
The jewelry store gave him a bottle of champagne and two glasses to celebrate and the man and his girlfriend headed to Glacier National Park, where snow was deep.
The couple stood on a small bridge. The groom-to-be poured two glasses of champagne and placed the ring inside the young woman’s glass. She took one sip and tossed the rest. The ring disappeared into the snow.
The couple searched in vain. Family members were summoned but the ring remained lost. The families attended a midnight mass and prayed for a miracle. The next day, searchers returned to the scene with shovels and dumped piles of snow into the beds of two pickups.
A slow and meticulous sifting turned up the ring, Anderson said.
Wheeler Jewelry has survived tough times, including the Great Recession.
“You always have to pay yourself last,” Anderson said. “You always pay your employees first.”
During the lean times, it has been crucial to remember, she said, that “somebody is always getting married, somebody is always wanting to commemorate a special occasion.”
Anderson doesn’t have a closing date in mind for Wheeler Jewelry. She owns the historic building that houses Wheeler Jewelry and previously housed a bank.
She said she will see how the sale goes. She hopes someone will be interested in D. A. Stocking’s ornate display cases.
During many of the years Anderson ran Wheeler Jewelry, she was a single mother.
“I had to reinvent myself so many times,” she said.
For a very long time, Anderson balked at telling her two children about hopping a freight at age 19. She said she feared they would do something equally reckless.
She waited so long to confess that by the time she did her children refused to believe Anderson was capable of such bravado.
She laughed, poised now at the brink of a new adventure.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at email@example.com or 758-4407.