Historic Kootenai Lodge undergoes transformation

New owner restores historic enclave on Swan Lake

The new look of the Kootenai Lodge on Swan Lake is taking shape.

A few months ago it was all mud and sawdust.

The foundations have been replaced, stone work finished, and interior design work accomplished. The historic lodge was purchased by Boca Raton, Fla., resident Paul Milhous and is undergoing major renovations.

History of Kootenai Lodge

Milhous bought the property in 2005 from Mark and Debi Rolfing, and is taking the historic buildings, renovating them, and selling some of them as single-family homes. An adjacent 40 acres to the Kootenai Lodge property will be developed as 40 single-family homes also. The lodge is now offering its first piece of real estate to the public.

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Charles Lindbergh at Kootenai Lodge, early 1900s

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A family boats on Swan Lake in this historic photo

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Frank Bird Linderman, back row on left, and Charlie Russell, back row on right, were among notable people to visit Montana's Kootenai Lodge.

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The Evans Cabin was originally built in the early 1900s for Orvis Evans, the attorney for the Anaconda Company. This was the first cabin to be renovated over the last year. What was a 90-year-old cabin on the shore of the Swan River is now a functioning, luxurious home, listed for sale at about $5 million.
 All of the interior design work on the renovation project is being done by well-known San Francisco designer Warren Sheets.

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When the original lodge was built, the individual cabins had no kitchens, since all of the cooking was done in the  main lodge. Now, new kitchens are being added to the cabins, making them self-sufficient. In the Evans cabin, a luxurious but traditional approach was taken by Sheets, keeping the period effect of the kitchen intact, but giving the homeowners the amenities of a modern kitchen. A large commercial kitchen was added in the main lodge to accommodate large groups.

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The great room at Kootenai Lodge on Swan Lake

Over the past two years, as construction reached a fever pitch on the property, some of the original family members who owned the Kootenai Lodge visited the property.

Octogenarian Mary Kelly visited the property and was nearly given to tears over her memories — and how the property is being preserved for generations to come, sales manager Jeff Wirth said.

“It’s amazing, the love and the attraction the families still have for this place,” Wirth said. “Yes, we’re selling homes here, but it’s’ really a part of old Montana.”

Mary Kelly recounted several stories of life at the Lodge in the 1920s, such as the time when, as a five-year-old girl, she was given a small merry-go-round for her birthday.

Workers during the renovation had found that same toy, refurbished it and the new owners planned to display it on the property. When Kelly heard this news, it brought tears to her eyes, Wirth said.

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Restoration of historic lodge and cabins

This type of attention to detail is part of owner Paul Milhous’ love for fine craft.
Milhous has a passion for restoration. He’s known for his restorations of automobiles and musical instruments. “Every inch here at the lodge has been gone over,” Wirth said. “There’s not a single piece that hasn’t been looked at. If we found something and it was salvageable, we save it.”

Built in 1921 at the north end of Swan Lake near Bigfork, the Kootenai Lodge was once a playground for Montana’s — and America’s — most influential people. It was here that people like artist Charlie Russell, aviator Charles Lindbergh, actress Jane Wyatt and Montana’s early copper magnates came to vacation. It was here at the Kootenai Lodge along the shore of Swan Lake that Montana’s early industrial leaders built a sprawling complex of log lodges and cabins.

The 14,000-square foot main lodge has been raised off the ground and a new foundation put in place. New furniture accents the original taxidermy mounts and original log work that remains from the lodge’s early days. Three fireplaces in the main lodge were removed and restored, using the original rock work. 
Former owner Debi Rolfing, who raised foster children here during her tenure as owner, said she’s glad the new owner is giving such attention to detail as caretaker of the Kootenai Lodge.

“I have not spent a lot of time on Swan Lake since the 2005 sale, but during one of my visits I was heartened by the extremely detailed and magnificent restoration of the Main Lodge,” Rolfing said.

“I have confidence that Paul and Mary Ann Milhous will give careful consideration in the restoration of Kootenai Lodge and the preservation of this sacred Montana treasure.”

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