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The People, The Mansion, The Museum
Charles E. Conrad played an impressive role in the settlement of the Northwest during the latter part of the 19th century. He and older brother William established a shipping and freighting empire in Fort Benton, Montana Territory that eventually became the most important transportation center in Montana. Routes extended north into Canada and as far west as Walla Walla, Washington Territory. For 23 years, the brothers prospered until the railroad arrived. They left Fort Benton and diversified into real estate, banking, cattle ranching and mining throughout Montana. The brothers continued to be prominent figures in the state's history for the remainder of their lives.
Charles E. Conrad was born in 1850 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, near the town of Front Royal. He was one of thirteen children, the second oldest son, raised on the family's Wapping Plantation. The Civil War changed the family's way of life and Charles and William headed west to seek their fortune. The young Civil War veterans, who served in the guerilla cavalry of Mosby's Rangers, arrived in Fort Benton, Montana territory in 1868. The brothers found work with I.G. Baker, the owner of the largest mercantile establishment at Fort Benton and eventually bought the business. In 1879, Charles met and married Alicia (Lettie) Davenport Stanford, who had moved from Halifax, Nova Scotia with her widowed mother and younger brother. Charles and Alicia had two children while in Fort Benton; son Charles Davenport Conrad, born in 1882, and Catherine Conrad, born 1885.
Construction began in 1892 and the family moved in around Thanksgiving 1895. The 13,000 square foot, shingle style home with a Norman period interior has 3 floors; 26 rooms, three of which are bathrooms; and 8 sandstone fireplaces.
The quarter sawn oak trim and paneling, finished by German immigrant craftsmen, were imported from the Midwest. The original light fixtures are electric with a carbide gas backup system, just in case the nascent electric power failed. Most windows in the home are diamond-paned leaded glass windows, but several rooms contain tinted or clear bottle glass. The second floor reveals interior window panels of Tiffany-style stained glass. Cutter was fond of arches and they are featured prominently throughout the home.
On a more practical and innovative note, the house contains a freight elevator, a dumbwaiter, a radiator warming oven, a unique barrel-shaped pass through connecting the kitchen and dining room, built-in fire hoses on each level, drying racks in the laundry room, and a communication system, including an electric call box, intercom and even a speaking tube. Additional features are two Italian onyx cold water drinking fountains and a wall-mounted 1895 Spaulding exercise machine.
The music room features a hand painted linen border next to the linen ceiling. A second floor billiard and game room boasts a large bank of windows, window seats and oak paneling. Each of the nine bedrooms have their own marble sink and walk-in closet. Several service and recreation rooms are located on the 3rd floor.
The home was always owned by the Conrad family. Campbell lived in the home until 1964 when she could no longer afford to maintain it. She and her husband moved into a trailer on the northwest corner of the property. After much financial hardship and overcoming the city's initial refusal to accept the financial responsibility due to lack of community support, Campbell prevailed and in 1974, the city accepted her gift with the condition that no taxpayer money be used to support it.
The city of Kalispell directed the newly-formed Conrad Mansion Board of Directors to carry out the repair, restoration, maintenance and operations of the Mansion. In 1975, under the direction of L.A. "Sam" Bibler, the first president of the Board of Directors, scores of local volunteers worked to bring the home and grounds back to its bragging rights. That same year, the Conrad Mansion Museum was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On June 1, 1976, a frail Alicia Campbell was present at the grand opening of the Conrad Mansion Museum for public tours. The lifelong dream of the little girl raised in the Mansion had finally been realized.
To this day, the Museum is self-supporting and relies solely on monies received by tour fees, fundraisers, memberships and donations. The Museum is a 501(c)(3) organization that operates without taxpayer funds.
We are proud to be a Distinctive Destination of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We welcome all National Trust Members to receive discounts when visiting the Museum.
Visit www.preservationnation.org/distinctivedestinations for more information.