It was long thought that the house of the founder of Kalispell was haunted by its ghost, but the Conrad Mansion around Halloween is spooky even when the spirits are not around.
The nearly 120-year-old mansion turned museum is covered in cobwebs and skeletons this time of year for its annual ghost tours.
Museum director Brit Clark said ghost tours are one of the ways the museum is generating revenue for the year. Visits are made at night when the house is almost completely dark. They are so popular that tickets sell out long before Halloween. Tours share the history of the mansion and perhaps a glimpse of one of Conrad’s famous ghosts.
The mansion was built by Kirtland Cutter, the same architect who built the Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park. It was Charles and Lettie Conrad’s dream house. Charles moved to Montana after fighting for Confederation during the Civil War and eventually became the owner of one of the region’s largest river freight and shipping companies. This is where he made his fortune, and it positioned him to be the founder of Kalispell.
“Charles and Lettie moved to the Flathead Valley because he received advice from James J. Hill that the Great Northern Railroad would pass through here,” Clark said. “I think it was James J. Hill who said ‘you bring the city, I will bring the railroad’, or vice versa.”
The house began to be built the same year that Kalispell was founded in 1892 and was completed in 1895. Charles could not enjoy his new home for long and died a few years later in 1902. Clark said that Lettie was left to run the house. and help build the city.
“Charles did a lot of things, there’s no doubt about it, but his wife Lettie is the reason the city is as it is today; she was the one here, she farmed it, donated a lot of the land that we still use today, so we’re trying to focus on both, ”Clark said.
The Conrads raised three children in the mansion: Charley, Cate and Alicia. Alicia, the youngest of the Conrad children, lived in the house until her death in 1981. Clark said she was the one who donated the house to the town of Kalispell and that is why the house owns an extensive collection.
“That’s why 90% of everything on display is original, because she was an accumulator, she never threw anything away, which is great for us. Most historic house museums do not have the original artefacts. They’re sold, or lost, or whatever, but all of ours are here, ”Clark said.
THE MANOR caught fire in 1910, but was quickly extinguished with the help of neighbors and other townspeople, Clark said. As a thank you, Lettie threw a big Halloween party for the city inspired by Dante’s Hell.
“The basement was hell, the ground level was Earth, the second floor was Purgatory, and the third floor was Heaven,” Clark said.
The Conrads held the third floor of the mansion in high regard. Clark said this is where Charles Conrad’s “Heaven Office” is located and his so-called ghost is most visible.
“This is where he spent a lot of time, so naturally that’s where people see it. They don’t really see it, per se, but it takes the form of cigar smoke. So if you walk and you smell overwhelming cigar smoke, it’s Charles, ”said Clark.
Clark said Lettie was seen as an elegant ghostly Victorian woman and Alicia was seen as the ghost of a little girl. She said another room that sees a lot of paranormal activity is the children’s playroom, which is near Charles’s office on the third floor and still has many of their toys on display.
“The thing with ghost tours that I have learned since working here is that I am neither a believer nor a disbeliever … but you have to respect people’s beliefs, so if they say they do. ‘saw, they saw it,’ said Clark.
While ghost tours are done for the season, normal tours can still be scheduled for daytime tours by calling and making an appointment. She said Halloween is the biggest event for the mansion besides Christmas, which sees the house decorated in a completely different and fantastical way, including a tree that reaches the ceiling of the second floor, a tradition that Conrad have started themselves. Clark said the museum allows people to learn more about the Conrads, but also to see what life was like for them and what hopes they had for Flathead Valley.
“The beliefs they had about community and conservation still ring true today, so there are Conrad spirits all over this town whether you know it or not. They were here before us and I think they have echoed through the generations, ”said Clark. “I don’t think you can really understand the story or where we’re going without committing to it. I don’t think you can learn everything from books and lectures; you have to dive into it. So houses like the Conrad Mansion visualize what life was like. ”
To book a guided or self-guided tour, call 406-755-2166 or visit their website at conradmansion.com.
Journalist Taylor Inman can be reached at [email protected]