Destinations: Kehoe's Agate Shop in Bigfork
Posted on 07 January 2016
The skeleton of the steamship Helena lies rotting in the sand of the Flathead River, the hand-hewn timbers slowing giving way to time and water.
Standing on the banks of the river near Holt, you can almost hear the whistles of the steamboats and the shouts of lumberjacks working a floating raft of logs. Holt, on the outskirts of Bigfork, is now just an elbow in the river about a mile north of the river's mouth, but from 1889 to 1900, Holt was among the busiest towns in the Flathead Valley. The town had a post office, livery stable, store, blacksmith shop and three saloons. They're all gone now, and the only store that remains from those glorious days is Kehoe's Agate Shop.
Thick steel spikes from the Helena's timbers have wiggled loose and now rest among the river rocks, and nearby, a gigantic chain used to tie up the river boats dangles from a decaying post. They are vivid reminders of a former way of life for boatmen and lumberjacks on the Flathead River.
A ferry crossed the river at Holt — formerly known as Lee's Landing — allowing goods and people from the lower valley to get to Bigfork and the east shore of Flathead Lake. The ferry ran from the late 1880s to 1942, when it was replaced by a bridge, and rock and timber pilings still stand in the river today. The bridge was removed in 1955, when the new Sportsman Bridge on Highway 82 was built.
Before automobile routes were put in around Flathead Lake, steamship travel was the only way goods and people were transported around the lake. The steamships carried freight to Polson from Somers, which was on the mainline of the Great Northern Railroad. A cannery in Stevensville shipped canned vegetables up to Polson, where steam ships like the Helena would pick up the vegetables and haul them to Somers, where they would be shipped out to the coast.
The Helena was 110-feet long and built out of three-inch tamarack strips laid over 6-inch by 8-inch timbers. Its engine had once been a showpiece built for the Chicago’s World Fair in 1892. It then was used in a fire boat on the Chicago River until, when battling a fire, a grain elevator collapsed and sank the boat.
James Kehoe had come to the Bigfork area from the Great Lakes to ply his skills as a boat captain. He built the Helena at the mouth of the Swan River in the fall and winter of 1914, and by the next spring it was ready to go to work carrying freight up and down Flathead Lake and river.
Five years later, Kehoe purchased land at Holt, where he ran the Helena until the riverboat system was replaced by automobiles and trains in the early 1930s. It was here that his son, James Sr., began the Kehoe Agate Shop.
The ships had names like the Comet, a 70-foot steam boat built mainly for passengers and light freight; the Montana, and the Klondike, a large sternwheeler; the Howard James, A. Guthrie and Wesley Wells, ships named after officials with railroad. The Helena burned three cords of wood in getting from one end of the lake to the other, and that was without a headwind, the elder Kehoe remembers in an oral history of his life at Holt.
In addition to hauling freight and goods around the lake, many of the ships hauled cord wood to Hell Roaring Creek near Polson, where the town used a steam plant for powering machinery.
Since there was no railroad coming into Polson in the early 1900s, the freight had to be carried to Polson from Somers.
James Kehoe Sr. began piloting the Helena when he was 12, and took over as pilot of the Helena when he was 14; but it would be a short-lived career as a boat captain on Flathead Lake. By the mid-1930s, the steamboat system had slowed to a halt, replaced by automobile transportation around Flathead Lake. It was then that Kehoe began building his rock shop on the banks of the Flathead River.
The Kehoe Agate Shop still stands today, carried on by his son, James Jr., and daughter Leslie.
The shop is a classroom of archaeology, geology and fine jewels. You'll find Indian arrowheads, 12,000-year-old mastodon fossils, 85-million-year-old mollusk fossils from the Bear's Paw Mountains, and glistening Yogo sapphires from Lewistown. A walk around the neighborhood is also a trip back in time.
Leslie and James grew up at their father's side in the shop, but it was James who truly yearned to follow in his father's steps. Leslie left the family shop to attend business school in Arizona. She returned to help with the family store. It didn't take her long to become captivated once again by the store.
"I never thought I'd come back," says Leslie, an ardent naturalist and conservationist who received a degree in international business. "When you start looking at these minerals, it's not hard to see where the fascination comes from. The world is just a truly amazing place."
James started cutting stones when he was six, and his knuckles bear the scars of a mishap with a stone grinder. Youthful impatience sometimes pried him away from his father's shop, and pushed him to pursue other hobbies, like fishing in the deep hole in the Flathead River outside their shop.
"Sometimes I wish I'd have asked him more questions," James says now. "Once they're gone, they're gone. It's kind of hard to get that information back."
James Kehoe Sr. died from a heart attack in 1992. Their father's presence remains throughout the shop in physical and perhaps more subliminal forms. His chicken-scratch writing is found on tags on the older relics in the shop, and wide wooden planks plucked from the steamship Helena line the walls. The shop's foundation was built with the ship's timbers. Outside the shop, in an overgrown yard, ferns grow around the ship's 300-pound anchors while brush surrounds the Helena's original boat house that looks forlornly upon the Flathead River.
Many of the people who come into Kehoe's have been coming there for years. The shop is located in an out-of-the-way spot, so the people who go there arrive with a purpose.
"When people buy from us, they're usually customers for life," James says. "That means more to me than anything."
A mother and daughter stop in every couple of weeks to shop, though it's not just to buy; there is a feeling of history at this old rock shop on the Flathead River.
Outside the shop, a flock of wild turkeys wanders down the deserted street that dead-ends into the Flathead River. Across the street, a dilapidated store that once catered to riverboat travelers slowly gives way to time, as trees grow up through its boards.
James and Leslie do their best to hold that time in check. People have asked the Kehoes to move their store to downtown Bigfork along with the other boutiques and gift shops, but James doesn't see him or his sister ever releasing their hold on this little piece of Montana history.
"People tell us he'd be proud," Leslie says.
"The building would have to burn down for me to ever leave," James adds. "What my father did, and what he built is very important to keep."
Kehoe’s Agate Shop
By Kay Bjork
Just a little jog off Holt Drive and the Eagle Bend Golf Course and tucked in a little pocket of Bigfork that has remained relatively unchanged for decades, is the charming Kehoe’s Agate Shop.
Established by James Kehoe in 1932 along the riverbank of Flathead River in the old settlement of Holt, it is operated today by his children Leslie and James.
They too reflect a simpler time with their small town friendliness and willingness to share extensive knowledge of agates, and other rocks, gems and minerals from around the world. Intelligent and thoughtful, they also have a wealth of information about Montana history and its features.
The shop is housed in a storybook white house with blue trim and a cat on the doorstep. Right next-door are relics from The Helena, a Flathead Lake steamboat captained by their grandfather in the early 1900s.
This 70-year old shop began with James Kehoe’s passion for agates. He loved the entire process – agate hunting, cutting the stone and polishing each slice to make the miniature scene jump out of its shiny surface.
Following in his father’s footsteps, James Jr. started cutting agates when he was just six-years old. With a sheepish grin he displays a small scar on his knuckle acquired in his early apprenticeship. James has formal training in Gemology and Jewelry Manufacturing and does silverwork and sets stones.
Leslie came to the business later, after leaving Montana to earn her Masters in International Management.
Stunning displays of polished Montana agates, Yogo sapphires, sparkling lavender crystal, custom jewelry, petrified wood specimens, fossils, and minerals transform the shop into a geological wonderland.
Puffin the cat lounges at the door or on the counter and like he’s part of the display. He acts like he’s been there for the entire 70 years but don’t let him fool you – he’s only been around for the last 15 years.
Kehoe’s Agate Shop
1020 Holt Drive
Bigfork, MT 59911
June through September: Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Off-season hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.