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Lake County citizens celebrate centennial

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POLSON — In 1911 a group of Polson residents petitioned the Montana Legislature to create a new county out of portions of Flathead County to the north and Missoula County to the south. Their request was granted in April of 1923 when voters within the new county’s proposed boundaries approved its formation. Aug. 10, 2023 Lake County Commissioner minutes note the date as the “Day on which Lake County begins to function.”

Lake County’s 100th birthday was celebrated Saturday, Aug. 19. Dancing, drumming, reflections on the county’s past, hopes for its future and of course, a parade marked the occasion.

Festivities began with a one-mile fun run followed by a parade down Main Street and then an opening ceremony on the Lake County courthouse lawn. Current and former county government officials joined with county citizens to mark the occasion. County Commissioner Gale Decker opened by giving thanks for all in attendance and quickly followed with an explanation for the hometown Ronan attire he proudly wore. He reminded attendees that the hotly contested election for the county seat between Polson and Ronan in May of 1923 was narrowly won by Polson with 2,118 votes to Ronan’s 1,451. To audience laughter, Decker said he expects to maybe get over the disappointment in the next 100 years. 

Jeremy Lee with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office gave the invocation after which Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron introduced current and past Lake County elected officials in attendance. Commissioner Decker then proclaimed Aug. 19, 2023, as Lake County Founder’s Day. The Veterans’ Honor Guard presented the colors while Mission Valley Choral Society members sang the National Anthem and the State Song.

In his keynote address, retired 20th Judicial District Court Judge James Manely gave historical context for the county’s formation. The U.S. President at the time was Warren G. Harding. Women had recently gained the right to vote and Round Butte School in Ronan “had a hell of a basketball team.” Both Polson and Ronan were vying to be the county’s seat. Ronan was a hub of many waterways and the central area for valley farming. Polson argued they were a transportation hub with steamships and the railroad. In their campaigning efforts, Polson residents started a roadshow and placed ads in newspapers proclaiming their support in various Lake County towns. The strategy proved effective. Manley noted that county residents must’ve been pretty sure of themselves in the formation of a new county because the vote for county seat was held in the same election.

Presently, “We have challenges facing us none of us have ever seen before,” Manley said. “So, we’re gonna have to pull together.” He added that he hopes Lake County continues to be the most beautiful place to raise a family and that people come together to overcome shared problems in the next 100 years. “Take care of each other,” he said.

A cultural presentation by members of the Salish, Kootenai and Qlipse Dance Troupe and Buckshot drum group followed. Grand entry, the flag song, an Intertribal Dance, Round Dance and Hoop Dance were shared by singers and dancers.

Live music by the Singing Sons of Beaches, music by Bannack String Band and the Shamrockers, a food court, various educational booths on the courthouse lawn, a food court, and self-guided tours of the county courthouse rounded out the day’s festivities. 

A visual display of the county’s first hundred years with notable events by decade was hung on the walls of the courthouse’s second floor. Historic displays of the county’s schools could be viewed on third floor walls while a special centennial video played on a loop in the conference room.

Filmmaker David King said he was struck most by the vast number of people associated with the region prior to the county’s establishment.

“Paul Fugleberg's book, “Proud Heritage,” provided many of the photos featured in the video,” he explained. “Those photos include one featuring the New Lake movie theater, circa the late 1930s, in front of which posed hundreds of patrons of all ages. Being interested in movies, I had no idea the little town of Polson had such an avid moviegoing public ‘back in the day.’”

In the centennial video various county officials, tribal members and business owners outlined what they thought the county’s strengths and challenges are.

The common thread of strength for the county was the area’s natural beauty and character of people who reside here. Inter-government relationships developed between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the county to protect shared interests were noted as especially important. 

Current challenges mentioned (included rather than centered around) centered around housing, needed workforce and funding for public services including a new jail and treatment center.

“My mother came to Lake County in a covered wagon and she lived to see a man walk on the moon,” Decker said in the video. “And now we hop in our vehicle and drive to Polson or Kalispell, you know on a regular basis … Just seeing all the changes that have happened and wondering what the future holds for our children, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. You know we hope for a great future for them but again it depends, I think, on what we do right now to prepare our county for these future years.”


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