On a windy day in Augusta, Montana a historic icon was lost. The Bunkhouse Inn lies in a heap of rubble. What was once a shining glory was burnt to the ground on Saturday, October 10th.
While the cause remains a mystery, the effects are a devastating loss to the town of 300 or so residents.
Recent/previous owners Aimee and Dylan Lennox watched in horror on Facebook Live along with the next owners Donna and Channing Hartelius. The Lennox’s called the Bunkhouse home and Hartelius lovingly restored it.
For Matt and Lori Folkman who just took the helm of The Bunkhouse, at the end of August, their home and precious personal possessions, in the owner’s apartment, were lost forever. Matt and Lori want to thank the community for their support. “We love this community and feel their love in return.” While they would like to rebuild, he acknowledges The Bunkhouse can’t be replaced, but whatever they build can “start making the next 100 years of history.”
Augusta Area Chamber of Commerce President and part-owner of The Buckhorn, Tammy Dellwo is “Thankful she lives in a small town where everyone pulls together in a crisis. Without all the community support, it could have been a lot worse. If it had moved to the adjacent gas station or Latigo and Lace, the whole town could have been lost.”
As a testament to the community “pulling together,” late Saturday afternoon when it became evident that the Bunkhouse could not be saved, fire crews joined with community members and onlookers, forming a human chain, removing items from Latigo and Lace and carrying them across the street to the Augusta American Legion hall for safekeeping. Latigo and Lace was not damaged by the fire, primarily through the efforts of firefighters to control flames on that side of the Bunkhouse.
Two pump units supplied water to firefighters, one located behind the Bunkhouse, the other was positioned in the Lone Wolfe gallery parking lot.
One firefighter explained that it was a tough fire to fight, partly due to renovations that had been done over the years, primarily in the area of the roof.
The loss is exacerbated by the fact that Hartelius had just done a major renovation of the Bunkhouse. Hartelius uncovered art behind the ceiling, original wooden floors and a punched tin ceiling hidden behind a dropped ceiling. While folks had time to enjoy these finds, they are lost now to only memories and photographs.
Will Thrasher and his wife Linda were staying at The Bunkhouse on Friday night. They had left their dog in their room while they had lunch at daughter Candi Shalz’ bar, The Western. Will had just gone back to his room to retrieve his dog and was headed out on a day trip when not long after Candi reached out to let her dad know that the Bunkhouse was on fire. Will, Linda and their friend Cathy Bjork lost luggage, boots, iPads, everything they left in their two front rooms.
Fortunately, these are things; there was no loss of life.
Janice Henry was driving by The Buckhorn when the fire broke out. As she tells it, there was a young couple with their two kids eating at the bar at the same time. They were visiting from Malmstrom and shared on the very same day, two years ago, they lost everything they owned to a hurricane in Florida. While the media has shown us so many stories of big cities with serious problems, on this day those two strangers to Augusta jumped into help. They let Janice and Tammy Dellwo watch their two kids while they jumped in to help fight the fire.
There is also a unknown guest who ran into the smoky halls and knocked on doors making sure all inside were alerted to the fire. Candi Shalz, from The Western Bar cooked spaghetti and The Elk Creek Colony women brought sandwiches for the volunteers. Allen’s Manix sent sandwiches and bottled water to the firemen.
As the fire grew, other volunteer firefighters joined Augusta firefighters in the battle, coming from Fairfield, Choteau, Wolf Creek and The Elk Creek Hutterite Colony. Those dedicated men and women did everything within their control to save the structure, but the vulnerable structure and high winds combined for what was never to be. What just looked like smoke around 3:00 pm, grew to live flames around 4:30 pm. There was no saving it after that.
Fire crews fought the flames until around 8:30 pm when local David Smock brought in a neighbor’s Case excavator at the urging of local fire department members. Smock said, “I’d rather it be me there. I have a lot of experience and I knew what I needed to do to be safe. In a moment you just do what you have to do.” As an onlooker, one could see the peril Smock faced with pieces of the building being blown all around the eventual collapse of the structure as it moved toward him on the excavator.
I say this often when I write stories about locals, but the word ‘humble” keeps making the forefront. Humble David Smock would not want to be called a hero, just like all of the other humble, capable and generous volunteers who sacrificed their time and their truly their lives fighting a tough fire at 124 Main Street in Augusta, Montana, but they were and are.
Locals came out in droves to watch, pitch in, weep and volunteer. It is the true American sprit in a small western town.
The Sun Times had been doing research into the history of the Bunkhouse for an upcoming story when the fire occurred. The story will run soon after the election.
In the meantime, we can report that the building started out in Gilman when Billy Foster erected the Hotel Gilman in 1911. According to a story that appeared in The Great Falls Tribune on October 7, 1979, “The Hotel Gilman boasted a dining room and a bar. Rodeo celebrities such as Bill and Fannie Steele, often stayed there with area residents attending the Lewis and Clark County Fair.
After the Great Northern Railroad extended the line into Augusta, “Gilman’s death knell was sounded,” said the Tribune article. “In 1925, Augusta celebrated the railroad’s decision and the next year the Hotel Gilman said its goodbye and was moved by horsepower down the road in two pieces.
According to the old Augusta newspapers, the two sections sat on blocks for a couple of years until a legal dispute over the property in Augusta was settled in court. By the 1930s, the hotel was back in business as the Augusta Hotel.
In 1979, Cliff and Ona Wilson acquired the hotel and changed the name to Bunkhouse.
On a windy, fall day in Augusta, Montana, history was extinguished, but hope was not.