Group hoping to restore ‘Old Main’ veterans’ home in Columbia Falls, which opened in 1896 and was abandoned in 1970

By Myers Reece    Photography by Lido Vizzutti

A stately tree-lined entranceway leads visitors onto the grounds of the Montana Veterans’ Home in southwest Columbia Falls. At the end of the boulevard sits an impressive brick structure, so tucked away along the Flathead River that few people know about it despite its size and the fact that it’s been there for over 100 years. It’s history in hiding.

But a grassroots effort is underway to bring the “Old Main” out of hiding. The building provided care for veterans of the Civil War through World War II up until the onset of the Vietnam War, and a group of determined locals wants to ensure that it now receives its own proper care.

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The historic “Old Main” on the Montana Veterans’ Home campus in Columbia Falls.

“There are a lot of people right here in Columbia Falls that don’t even know about the building,” says Vicki Reynolds, a member of the Columbia Falls Historical Society. “And it’s such an amazing building.”

The Columbia Falls Historical Society is leading the restoration charge, though plans are still in the infant stages. The organization’s members and other supporters are currently trying to raise community awareness about the Old Main’s significance and potential, if not simply its existence.

One potential model for precedent is The Museum at Central School in Kalispell, another 1890s building that has been resurrected from abandonment to a second life as a cultural cornerstone and community hub. The Old Main has similar potential for transformation into a multi-purpose museum and activity center, though the historical society is open to exploring any good idea.

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Ron Beard consults a map of Old Main.

First, the group wants to solicit public input on the best plan forward, and then find donors and other funding sources who believe in the plan.

“We’d like to hear from the community,” Reynolds says.

Whether the Old Main ends up as a museum full of historical artifacts, the building already has a lot of history to offer within its walls. Built in 1896, it is the oldest building on the campus of the Montana State Soldiers’ Home Historic District, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1994.

In the 1890s, roughly 2,500 Civil War veterans lived in Montana, with a number of them in rural areas without adequate services. An influential veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic pressed the state Legislature to provide a care facility for these veterans, who often had special needs either because of age or health problems stemming from their service. In 1895, the Legislature authorized the construction of a veterans’ home.

Old Main, Columbia Falls

Green, blue and white cracked paint add texture and patterns to an abandoned kitchen area of Old Main.

Eight towns sought the facility, according to a 2014 report on heritage properties by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Columbia Falls emerged as the favorite thanks to thousands of dollars from local residents and a 147-acre land donation from the Northern International Improvement Co., a subsidiary of Great Northern Railway. Northern International Improvement Co. sweetened the deal with free installation of the boiler, pump, engine, and tanks.

In 1896, a contractor and politician named Fred Whiteside led construction of the Old Main, which was designed by Helena architect C.S. Haire, the mastermind behind a number of the state’s other most prominent public buildings at the time. A cemetery was added the next year, followed by a small hospital in 1900 and a bigger hospital in 1908. In 1919, a building was constructed to house employees and serve as a chapel.

Through its earliest years, the veterans’ home campus was largely a self-sufficient community. Employees and residents grew vegetables in gardens and raised livestock, including pigs and cattle. The grounds were meticulously landscaped. It hardly called to mind stereotypes of a sterile nursing home.

The Old Main was the centerpiece, serving as headquarters for the growing operation. The building, which has two primary levels plus an attic and basement, originally was designed to house 50 men, according to the registration form submitted in 1994 to the National Register of Historic Places.

Old Main, Columbia Falls

A historical photograph from the Old Main’s dedication in 1896, courtesy of the Museum at Central School.

In addition to the dormitory, it had a dining hall, kitchen, food pantry, lavatories, fireplaces, a reading room, a parlor, and a medical wing, all adorned with native wood – mostly larch – interior flourishes. The basement held a laundry room.

Due to increasing membership, a one-story annex was constructed in 1956 to provide additional beds. But as membership continued expanding, veterans’ home officials saw need for a brand new facility with modern updates. In 1967 and 1969, the state Legislature approved the construction of a domiciliary and nursing care unit, across the parking lot from the Old Main.

Following multiple additions and a remodel in 2009, the modern facility has 105 skilled-care beds and 12 domiciliary beds. Its Alzheimer’s unit has 15 beds.

Since the 1970s, the Old Main has sat mostly neglected, aside from a $250,000 effort – raised from local donors – to build a new, reinforced roof and attic. The old roof had been leaking, and water damage is evident today on the second-level ceiling and floor, where chunks of plaster lay in clumps.

The stray plaster and water stains are among the many signs of abandonment throughout the Old Main. Yet, the building’s most important features remain in good shape: the structural foundation, door frames, floors, walls.

“The building itself is very strong,” says Ron Beard, a building inspector who’s involved with the restoration efforts. “Everything is cosmetic, with the exception of a few isolated spots.”

The Old Main has personal meaning for Reynolds. Her grandfather and both of her parents worked on the campus, and she remembers visiting as a girl. She has no doubt that the building is worth saving.

Reynolds hopes that if the community learns more about the building, a lot of other people will think it’s worth saving, too. Historical society members envision a museum that is inclusive of the region’s many different historical legacies, because they believe the Old Main belongs to the people, even if the people don’t know it yet.

To contact the Columbia Falls Historical Society, visit www.columbiafallshistoricalsociety.org.