Following a 2016 fire, a hub of the Swan Valley reopens with a new look but the same cherished role as a community institution and traveler oasis
Story by Butch Laracombe | Photography by Justin Franz
Tucked between two prominent mountain ranges, the Swan to the east and the Missions to the west, Condon and the broader Swan Valley are graced by nearby wilderness, tens of thousands of acres of thick forest and a human population that is likely far outnumbered by bears, black and grizzly.
But the mark of mankind is clearly visible in this remote swath of northwest Montana. Highway 83 pierces the Swan Valley and forms Condon’s main street, one that stretches for a good 15 miles. Along this often lonesome highway are scatterings of homes, an elementary school, a log community hall and colorfully named Hungry Bear and Liquid Louie’s.
But the hub of the Swan Valley has long been the Mission Mountains Mercantile, which has offered the vital small-town staples of groceries, gasoline and gossip to generations of local residents and visitors, all in a convenient location next to the post office.
In May 2016, a late-night motorist spotted flames shooting from the landmark store and rushed to the nearby home of owner Len Kobylenski. Volunteer firefighters and others scrambled, but the fire was roaring when they arrived. Within a few hours, all that was standing were a few charred logs that had formed the entrance to the store.
“You could see from the looks on the faces, it was more than just a fire,” recalls Kobylenski, who bought the store in 1979, back when it was a little place called the Buckhorn Camp.
Over the years, Kobylenski added to the store and its offerings, creating a true mercantile where customers could find groceries, produce, fresh meat, dry goods and, on some days, fragrant baked treats. It was a homey place, with a welcoming front porch where news of family, friends and local doings was easily exchanged.
Later on, Kobylenski and his family diversified, launching a real estate office in the store. The two businesses meshed well. Potential buyers were lured in by the attractive woodsy store with the moose rack over the entrance. The viability of buying property in the remote valley was buoyed by the presence of the well-stocked store and gas station.
The store’s gas pumps offered the only fuel between the towns of Seeley Lake, more than 30 miles south, and the outskirts of Bigfork, a good 40 miles north.
The exact cause of the fire remains undetermined. The latest theory involves possibly faulty electrical wiring. But the cause was a relatively minor detail in the weeks and months after the blaze. For Kobylenski and Grace Siloti, his significant other, it was a period of uncertainty revolving around one big question: Should they rebuild the store?
For Siloti, who moved to the Swan Valley from Connecticut at age 10 with her family, there wasn’t a great dilemma. In the hours after the fire, peering through the few remaining darkened logs, she formed a vision of what a rebuilt store could be, complete with better mountains views, tall ceilings with exposed beams, metal accents and tasteful colors.
The vision wasn’t as distinct for Kobylenski. “He was a little reluctant at first,” Siloti recalls. Noting his approaching 71st birthday, she acknowledged that her partner “has paid his dues.”
Kobylenski was a banker in New York before heading out West in pursuit of whitewater adventures decades ago, and he found plenty of pragmatic reasons to proceed cautiously. Retirement held appeal. The profits from the store had always paled in comparison to those in real estate. How much would a new store cost? How would the inevitable struggle with the insurance company play out?
But there were plenty of reasons to rebuild, many of them involving the folks in Swan Valley, many of whom had become friends over the years. The Mercantile’s Facebook page was flooded with messages of sorrow and support in the weeks after the fire. The messages universally expressed hope that the store would return.
Kobylenski concedes that he had a strong attachment to the store he bought on the spur of the moment back in 1979, a business where the “open” sign hung in the window every day except Christmas and a couple of Easters, an operational streak that came to a fiery end after 13,562 days.
He looked around at other small communities in the region that had been hit with the loss of grocery stores or other key businesses. The picture wasn’t pretty.
“The valley has been very good to me,” Kobylenski said. “We knew that if we left it without a store, the valley would be in bad shape.”
At one point, Siloti told her partner, “If you don’t rebuild it, it will never come back.”
A groundbreaking ceremony held almost a year to the day after the fire drew nearly 200 people. A construction company run by a local family Kobylenski has known since his first days in the valley took the rebuilding reins. Siloti, aided by a Missoula architect, dove into the design details and decisions.
The resulting structure is a remarkable mix of tasteful design, the latest in building and retail technology, and a sophisticated, modern feel. Tall windows full of trees and mountains remind patrons they are in a remote mountain valley.
In late April, more than 11 months after work began, cars and trucks began pulling up to the gas pumps and store’s registers began ringing up sales.
From a practical standpoint, “it’s nice to have the gas back,” said Rollie Matthew, who led the local crew that built the new store. “Folks headed down to Seeley to fill up. You always had to have a gas jug or two in the back of your truck, just in case.”
But to Matthew, a lifelong resident of the valley, the Mercantile represents more than convenience. “When the store was gone, we never saw our neighbors. It’s a gathering spot, kind of the social center for the valley. They had a line in the parking lot, waiting for it to open.”
For Kobylenski and Siloti, who vividly retell the details surrounding the midnight knock on their door alerting them to the fire, the first day back in business was emotional. The many months of uncertainty and long days inching toward the reopening were difficult.
“I’m not quite sure how all the pieces fell together, but they have,” said Kobylenski, tiny tears in the corners of his eyes. “It’s almost overwhelming. You don’t quite realize what you have until you lose it.”