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New owners aim to restore, showcase history of Bigfork Inn

by MACKENZIE REISS
Daily Inter Lake | May 23, 2021 12:00 AM

Overlooking Electric Avenue, the Bigfork Inn has witnessed the evolution of this community as Bigfork grew from a modest, working man’s town to the bustling tourist destination it is today. New owners Kelly and Michael Brooks have plans to bring the property’s history to the forefront and update the building’s interior and front deck this summer.

“Our role is just to keep improving and stabilizing the building to enhance [Francois Zanni’s] operation here and have pride of ownership of something beautiful and historic,” Michael Brooks said.

The couple purchased the property in April and already have begun work to improve the historic space. The deck on the front of the building will be expanded this summer and the couple also plans to re-carpet the interior, replace current wall art with historic photos and bring in new dining room chairs.

“This is the first stage of an overall rejuvenation,” Michael noted.

The Brookses have had a home in Montana for the last 15 years and most recently purchased a residence in Woods Bay. Michael is the founder of an engineering software business EnterCalc, while Kelly is an interior designer. Michael, an avid boater, first discovered Bigfork while traveling to Whitefish, and was drawn in by the recreational opportunities on Flathead Lake and the “down to earth, common sense” people in the area.

While the couple are excited to update the building, while also preserving its history, they are leaving the operation of the restaurant in the capable hands of chef Francois Zanni. Zanni revamped the restaurant’s menu in the fall of 2019 to include fine-dining, European fare. This summer, the restaurant will continue offering its popular wild game dishes featuring elk, wild boar and rabbit, with the addition of fresh seafood dishes.

“We just lightened up the menu a little bit,” Zanni noted. “People always like the return of the halibut and the scallops.”

The biggest change diners will see this summer is the new deck which is scheduled to be completed in June.

The new owners want to celebrate the history of the property — showcasing the inn’s story through old photographs and possibly displays with information about prior owners.

“There’s so much here and it’s so historic .. but it’s not in the limelight right now,” Michael Brooks said. “We know that we’re going to make it fantastic.”

The Bigfork Inn is a local institution that has served as the gathering point for countless community events. Although its name would suggest otherwise, the property hasn’t been used as a guesthouse for decades. However, in the 1930s, the hotel offered accommodations for many workers and traveling salesmen. But in 1937 tragedy struck and a fire burned the inn to the ground. Some blamed the misalignment of the chimney while others said it was a furnace that got too hot, according to the inn’s website.

Then-owners Ernie and Catherine O’Brien secured a loan to rebuild the inn, which was called the Bigfork Hotel at the time. Ernie O’Brien was a local institution in his own right, known as “the Mayor of Bigfork” for his strong personality. O’Brien modeled the new inn after the Swiss-style chalets in Glacier National Park, and after just seven months of construction, the new building was finished enough for guests to access their rooms by walking on planks.

Back then, the Bigfork Hotel was the epicenter for the town’s activities, and served as the home for local teachers and even the superintendent of schools. The hotel attracted a few high-profile guests as well, including famous Western artist Charlie Russell and comedian Red Skelton.

The Bigfork Hotel became the Bigfork Inn in 1972 and 10 years later, was purchased by Bob and Suzie Keenan. The Keenans focused on developing the restaurant and added a library, balcony and deck to the Bigfork Inn. They operated the inn until 2018 when Zanni and business partner Christopher Languein bought the property, which is now in the hands of the Brooks family.

The Brooks hope to lead the Bigfork Inn into the future with respect to the past.

“He’s an engineer; I’m an interior designer and we’ve done some really neat things together,” Kelly Brooks said. “[Michael] loves the fact that this is an iconic, historic site … it’s special to him.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com