“Outbuildings can conceal their purpose, their history and their origins. Yet sometimes outbuildings may seem ‘lost’ and completely out of place.”
HOME EXTERIORS STORY & PHOTOS BY JAIX CHAIXhe Flathead Valley is a unique place. It’s home to a variety of houses with different styles and designs – and it’s also home to outbuildings of nearly every kind, style, and purpose.
Workshops, quonset huts, hay barns, chicken coops, RV ports, loafing sheds – these are some of the obvious outbuildings. But the “quirkier” outbuildings scattered throughout the Flathead Valley tell the best stories – or leave you guessing about their design and purpose.
Even long after a “main house” has been updated or remodeled, outbuildings tend to keep their charm and secrets. They’re tell-tale artifacts that often reveal history of bygone times to those who care to listen.
THE WILEY WATER HOUSE
For example, a rather unique outbuilding stands alongside Wiley Dike Road (and the Wileys Slough). Both bear the name of the Wiley family – Norwegian immigrants who first settled in the Flathead in 1884.
The Wileys built a log cabin, tamed the land, and built a dike in the slough that would later become the namesake of the area and the road that runs through it. They also built an outbuilding that has left more than a few passersby wondering what it is exactly.
From the outside, the tall, white clapboard-octagon tower looks like many things, but a cupola, lighthouse, or granary it is not.
It’s a water house. It’s an outbuilding that houses a large water tank that was placed on a platform inside the top of the structure. It was used to keep water fresh – and keep it from freezing. Water was once pumped into the tank tower by a windmill (which fell down in 2008). And below the tank, a stove was kept burning in the winter to keep the water from freezing, which helps explain why the water house has a brick chimney.
Also below the water tank, a concrete trough in the ground was used to keep milk, cream and butter from freezing in the winter (yet away from melting near the fire). During the summer, the trough helped keep milk and butter cool, as it was below ground.
The water house was built sometime around 1900. The original log homesteader’s cabin – built in 1884 – was made from local larch trees and was recently moved from its initial location on the property and adjoined behind the water house, as it appears today.
The Wiley water house is just one example of the many odd-shaped outbuildings throughout the Flathead Valley that may seem strange at first, yet reveal generations of family history and the ways of life of a bygone era.
RAILROAD-TIE MILKING BARN
When it comes to outbuildings, “what they are” may seem befuddling – and “what they are made of” may seem even more baffling.
For example, the cow skulls on the side of a milking barn in Somers state the purpose of the outbuilding rather plainly (as it does the story of its former bovine occupants). The barn sits on what many longtime residents may know as the “Hillcrest Cabin” and reminds us of forlorn times when keeping a dairy cow was both commonplace and necessary.
The purpose and shape of the outbuilding may seem obvious, but this milking barn isn’t made of just any plain old wood: it’s made of railroad ties from Somers Lumber Company, the nearby former railroad tie plant and sawmill.
The Somers Lumber Company sawmill and railroad tie plant were once a major enterprise of the Flathead Valley, when the company town boasted four churches, 13 bars and a good dozen stores and shops to serve the workers and their families.
The company produced more than 600,000 railroad ties per year (1901-1906). So building a barn from railroad ties (perhaps seemingly odd anywhere else) was quite practical, as railroad ties were more easily had than planks or beams.
Speaking of Somers, another nearby example proves that sometimes outbuildings get around a bit.
Aside from having remodeled one of the four original churches in Somers, Sue Snyder or “Scarecrow Sue,” has an unmistakable old outbuilding that she uses for her art and design work (some folks mistake it for an antique shop, but it’s not).
As with many outbuildings in the valley, this isn’t just any artist studio – and it’s not just any outbuilding. The building is actually more than a century old and an important part of Somers history – and it wasn’t always located where it is today. Looking over some historic photos of Somers shows that Snyder’s outbuilding was once a few blocks away, and more or less at the center of the company shops and businesses.
The building was originally a horse tack/blacksmith shop and later a plumbing shop. It once stood behind what is now Sliter’s Hardware and lumber yard. In 2004, Sliter’s was seeking to expand its operations and this old shop building stood directly in the path of their plans.
Rather than watch the building be burned down (since nobody else had any plans or use for it), Snyder decided to take possession of the old shop and have it moved to her property a few blocks down Somers Road (the site of the old Methodist Church, which she also refurbished and uses as her private residence).
With the help of good friends and a top-notch house-moving company, she had the building moved to her property where she’s been creating her art and preserving a piece of the history of Somers ever since.
A “LANDMARK” LOST IN LAKESIDE
Outbuildings can conceal their purpose, their history and their origins. Yet sometimes outbuildings may seem “lost” and completely out of place.
For example, along the west shore of Flathead Lake in Lakeside a rather peculiar outbuilding can be found. Many have called it a granary, a water tower, or a silo of some sort. But along Bierney Creek Road stands a bright yellow, late nineteenth-century beer vat. Yes, there is a beer vat – once used for brewing beer – in a backyard in Lakeside.
In the late 1950s, Albert Boerner’s father was building a house on their property. While he was building the house, he learned that a large beer vat was going to be dismantled or destroyed. Boerner had other plans and thought the beer vat would make a remarkable “landmark” in the backyard of his new home. So he disassembled the beer vat, moved it and rebuilt it in his backyard some time in the late 1950s – where it has been ever since.
The precise origins of the beer vat are unknown, but some speculate it came from a brewing operation in Whitefish or perhaps Kalispell (both quite far from its current spot). Unlike other similar outbuildings, this corn-colored monolith is uniquely a beer vat: It has a manhole door specifically for beer vats, which was originally patented in 1888 by William Heiser, a clever inventor who filed patents for a few beer-related inventions in his time.
As just these few examples show, the Flathead Valley is home to some unique and quirky outbuildings. Some outbuildings seem to hide their history. Others leave you guessing about their purpose. And more than a few outbuildings are just plain “out” there – and worth taking a few “wrong” turns to discover and appreciate.