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Saving Somers' history: Contractor breathing life into historic buildings

by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | November 21, 2021 12:00 AM

Lee Maxwell is working to save the past.

Hammer or saw in hand, day after day, Maxwell can be found near the intersection of Somers Road and U.S. 93, laboring to preserve the small buildings that have stood on that spot for more than a century.

“People look at these old, run down buildings and don’t realize the history that is here,” Maxwell said. “Teddy Roosevelt was president when these were built. It’s hard to believe how far we have come since these were constructed.”

The two buildings that are the focus of Maxwell’s current efforts were erected in either 1902 or 1903 (records are spotty as to the exact date) by the Somers Lumber Company and have served multiple purposes over the decades.

The westernmost building began its existence as a schoolhouse for the children of the foremen of the lumber company, while the building next to it housed the teacher.

When the children decided they did not want to be schooled separately from their friends, the schoolhouse became a doctor’s office, with the doctor himself residing next door.

After decades of neglect, Maxwell is doing all he can to restore the buildings to their former glory.

Using as many of the original materials as possible, along with items salvaged from antique houses and structures across the valley and a few replicated items, Maxwell has been meticulously bringing the buildings back as close to their original state as possible.

The work has not been easy.

“Banks won’t lend money on these projects. They look at the house and think I should forget about them,” he said. “Nobody in this country wants to maintain anything. People just want to bulldoze down old buildings and put up the new flavor of the week. I didn’t want to see that happen here. It’s all about saving history.”

So far, the seasoned contractor has made new siding for the buildings as well as new foundations to replace the railroad ties they sat on when he purchased the lot in 2008. Steam pipe issues under the old floor forced him to replace much of the subfloor, and the list goes on.

For Maxwell, though, it is a labor of love.

“I got into historic restoration after my wife bought a house built in 1892,” he explained. “After I finished that project, I was hooked. Now, restoration is all I want to do anymore. I’m just not a stapled-together, particle board kind of guy anymore.”

MAXWELL HAS already completed the restoration of the building adjacent to his current project, restoring the house that once served as a home for Somers Postmistress, Alma Fischer.

“That first one was actually in worse shape than the ones I am working on now. It was really trashed,” Maxwell said. “Everyone said I should tear it down, but I saw it differently. I hated to see all of that history just disappear.”

Over the course of roughly a year, Maxwell slowly brought the home back to its former glory, including saving the original stone foundation and hand-dug basement.

During his work in the old structures, Maxwell says he has found a number of interesting historical artifacts, including old medicine bottles from Kalispell drug stores that have long since passed into history, papers from some of the doctors that lived in the one house and much more. One man even found a dog license tag on the property from 1906 that said it had cost the owner $3 (just over $85 in today’s dollars).

Maxwell said that while finding neat pieces of history is fun, the best part of the project has been the people who stop by to share their past experiences.

“While I have been working on these, it's been amazing how many people have come by and told me things like ‘my grandfather used to live in that house’ and tidbits like that. I even had one old guy tell me about being treated in the doctor’s office after being injured in a farm accident,” Maxwell said. “It really reaffirms the value in saving old buildings when people stop and comment on what I am doing here.”

Reporter Jeremy Weber may be reached at 406-758-4446 or jweber@dailyinterlake.com.

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The former home of Postmistress Alma Fischer in Somers sits in disrepair before the recent historic renovation by local contractor Lee Maxwell. (photo provided)

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Among the original features Lee Maxwell was able to save from this home was the stone foundation. (photo provided)

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The former home of Postmistress Alma Fischer in Somers was in need of much restoration when it was acquired by contractor Lee Maxwell. (photo provided)

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Lee Maxwell's first restoration project in Somers was the rehabilitation of this house, once the home of Postmistress Alma Fischer. (photo provided)