Born in St. Louis, Charlie Russell came to Montana
in 1864, a dreamy 16 year-old in search of the Wild West.
He experienced it enormously, as a sheepherder, cowboy, writer and friend of the
Native American whose heritage extended way beyond that of the newly arriving
These experiences were preserved in poems,
letters, drawings and paintings that Russell created with his witty and
whimsical touch. Known for his knack at capturing action and authenticity, his
art served as a documentary of the Old West.
This maverick cowboy was 32 years old before he
settled down and married Nancy, who became the manager of his art career - and
his personal life, his old friends would suggest.
He established a log cabin studio near their
home in Great Falls and a maintained a strict routine to encourage a disciplined
Trips to New York and Hollywood expanded his
following and helped him become established as one of America's great Western
Today he is an American folk hero and his work
garners six figures at art auctions and sales.
Kootenai Lodge has its own unique collection
with over a dozen etchings in the enchanting courtyard. Russell produced the
images in wet cement during one of his frequent visits. A noble Native American
chief adorned with headdress graces the double door on one side of the courtyard
and a tipi adorns the entry on the other side.
Simpler figures such as salamander and turtle
are scattered throughout the Moorish styled courtyard.
He also fashioned a miniature rawhide tipi that
stands about two feet tall - a wonderful conversation piece on display in the
An unfinished painting of "Kootenai
Camp" is on display in Helena at the Montana Historical Society. The
watercolor depicts the Kootenai Lodge property as the Native Americans may have
seen it, with tipis nestled along the shore.
Russell was one of the early guests of the retreat established by Anaconda
Copper Mining Company President Cornelius "Con" Kelley and Chief
Counsel Lewis Orvis Evans when the retreat was more rustic and served as hunting
and fishing camp for "the boys."
"But if all Kootenai Lodges are the same
as this I'm hunting the Kootenai Camp," wrote Russell during a hunting and
fishing trip to Kootenai Lodge in 1912 with a group of friends that included
Flathead Valley pioneer, historian and statesman Frank B. Linderman.
Sprawled along the shores of Swan Lake and Swan
River and buried in the deep wilderness of the Swan Valley, Kootenai Lodge
possessed all the outstanding components of the frontier west that Russell
It was the first of numerous trips Russell made
to the magnificent Kootenai Lodge. Most of the construction of over 20 buildings
was completed after Russell's visit in 1912. At that time the lodge was composed
of a few homestead structures and a lodge shared by the Kelley and Evans family.
But Russell also enjoyed the lodge in its
heyday when life was lived on a grand scale complete with formal dinners,
limousines and games of Roulette.
A chronicle of the Kootenai Lodge hunting trip,
written by Frank Linderman's brother-in-law Sam Johns, is sprinkled with
references to Russell's memorable attendance. Johns wrote, "… We all
gathered around the fireplace and the conversation was turned to story telling
by Frank's asking Charlie about some experience he had in a certain old cow
town. Having got Charlie loosened up for he was with a bunch to his liking,
everyone at his ease and the smokes going, we listened for a couple of hours
while Charlie told story after story of the old days in his easy slow drawling
way, seldom smiling, but occasionally a chuckle would escape him over some
After two weeks of hunting, fishing,
storytelling and cavorting at the Kootenai Lodge, the group offered reluctant
Johns wrote, "When an outing is drawing to
a close, one finds the time has passed too quickly and there is the desire to
stay longer, and that evening our last in camp, the bunch all regretted their
having to leave…"
Kootenai Lodge is like that. Once you've sat by a campfire under the black sky
dotted with sparkly stars - you'll never want to leave.