Saturday, April 01, 2023

Disaster takes no holiday

| January 1, 2023 12:00 AM

For the day before Christmas I envisioned a low-key but productive time: yoga and Zumba, followed by writing this column and then a visit with family. Ironically — or not — I aimed to write about improv comedy.

As they say, if you want God to laugh, tell your plans.

My phone roused me at 6:27 a.m. last Saturday and I thought, That’s strange, it’s my workplace calling: the Northwest Montana History Museum.

First I heard the sound of water splashing in the background, then as the firefighter described the pipe breakage from the cold, I tossed aside the covers and jumped out of bed to head for trouble.

At the museum, a cascade of water flowed down the front stairs, making them treacherous for all but ice climbers, and after I entered through a side door — well, I’ll never forget the visual dissonance of a horsetail waterfall inside the building.

As Kalispell’s oldest public facility, the 1894 Richardsonian Romanesque edifice on Second Avenue East is a symbol of our earliest residents’ ambition for their town and the education of generations to come. It cost $20,000 to build, a massive investment a few years into Kalispell’s existence, and made use of local materials. The mission may have changed some over the intervening 128 years, but it’s still a place for learning, with a focus on the presentation and preservation of Northwest Montana stories.

From my office, I often see people outside taking pictures of the former schoolhouse. Maybe they attended classes here, or they’re visitors. They all want to be reminded of something cool in Kalispell.

This particular morning, it was cool, all right. The door froze open as we tried to divert the water flow outside. We rushed to move items to safety. Just before we managed to get the final water source shut off, part of the ceiling came down.

In the basement we trod through standing water and checked the office below — home to a photography collection — where a steady rain continued.

People started showing up and pitching in. Staff, board members, volunteers and friends waded in to haul boxes, set up tables and lay out items to dry. Talk about a team building exercise.

Professionals arrived with know-how and equipment, putting aside holiday time to help the history museum.

The pioneer spirit of our place continues, where remote living means that in emergencies you have to lean on neighbors, lend a hand to an institution in crisis or, as my grandma always said, show that many hands make light work.

It was a terrible day, but lots of people made it better. I witnessed an outpouring of concern and action for a place that’s stood the test of time and now a waterfall.

The column on improv comedy still may come. For 13 hours that day I was immersed in improv, acting in the moment, and there was some comedy. When we wished each other Merry Christmas, we really meant it.

In this new year, may your buildings stay warm, your pipes flow and your waterfalls stay outside.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at

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