Save the mansion on the hill

Cakes with chocolate chips.

It was the key, thought a young Jasmine Morton, to enter the yellow mansion on a hill overlooking Somers. Since 1903 the 14-room, three-bathroom mansion dominated the village, and while in the early years it was a center of community activity, in recent decades it has been shrouded in mystery, kept closed by a series of reclusive owners. .

But a recluse wasn’t going to stop a determined college student armed with a plate of freshly baked cookies. On a cool winter day, Morton walked to the front door and knocked. As she stood there, she briefly wondered what she could see inside. But his touring dreams were quickly and bluntly shattered when the light inside that had fueled his hopes faded. Frightened, she left the plate of cookies on the steps and walked away. It would take her another two decades before she had a chance to look inside the mansion on the hill.

Despite the disappointment she felt that night, the incident did not diminish her fascination with the mansion.

“I grew up walking past the building every day,” said the Somers native. “I have always loved him.”

Morton is not alone. Although it was a private residence for most of its existence, many people in the small lakeside community feel a connection to Somers Mansion as if they owned part of it, even s ‘they have never been there. But Morton, as the new owner, promises to restore the beloved building and even let the public inside for a peek.

An ornate doorknob in Somers Mansion on July 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flat head beacon

Today Somers is a small, quiet hamlet at the north end of Flathead Lake. But it was not always so peaceful. In 1900, railway builder James J. Hill opened a sawmill to make ties for his growing Great Northern Railway. A town developed around the mill as hundreds of workers took root there. But there was no denying that this was a bustling industrial city, regardless of its idyllic setting on the largest freshwater lake in the western United States.

“The closest approach to hell on earth is Somers, Montana,” FW Healewood wrote in Industrial Worker, a newspaper published by the Industrial Workers of the World, before a strike a few years after the opening of factory. “Somers’ main industry is sawing railway ties for Jim Hill. Jimmy owns everything around Somers, including the water, the docks, the sawmills, the county roads, and all the land the town is located on. Jimmy also owns the post office and almost all of the judges and lawyers in Flathead County. When he wants a few dozen thugs to intimidate the workers when they ask for more pay, he asks the drunk sheriff to deputize for all the moral degenerates who are not in the Montana penitentiary.

A few years after the factory opened, Hill took the most beautiful piece of land in town and reserved it for one of his deputies, John O’Brien, the first director of the Somers Lumber Company. O’Brien had a big family and needed a big house for them all, so in the summer of 1903 a group of artisans built a 7,982 square foot mansion. The construction was quick, which is evident in the different levels of craftsmanship and techniques.

O’Brien didn’t stay in the house for long, however, and a few years later the family returned to Minnesota. The first floor was transformed into a company office, while the second floor housed the new plant manager and his family. The third floor became a guesthouse for workers, later dubbed The Mountain Inn. It was during these years that the building became a community center, used for social events, dinners, dances and more.

Sunlight squeaks around the plywood-covered windows of a bathroom in Somers Mansion on July 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flat head beacon

The structure would be both an office, a private residence and an inn for the next 40 years until the company sold it to the McDevitt family. The offices have been moved and the guesthouse closed. The building has been closed to the public and will remain so for the next 75 years.

The McDevitt family was left alone and put up other no-trespassing signs on the property to keep people away. But that signage didn’t deter the kids on Halloween, and the family always put a bowl of candy on the porch to keep the kids happy, recalls Brad Nelson, who grew up in the area.

Over the years, as the McDevitt family dwindled, parts of the mansion were closed, starting with the third floor and then the second floor. The yellow paint that had been the hallmark of the old building began to fade. In 2005, the mansion was sold to Christin Didier, who planned to restore it. But those plans fell apart a few years later when a microburst on the shores of Flathead Lake caused extensive roof damage. A few months later, a chimney fire caused even more damage. The structure began to fall into disrepair. In 2011, the bank seized the property and Didier was evicted the following year.

Then, in November 2012, the mansion was put on the market again, this time for $ 399,900. A lot of people thought the asking price was too low, especially for 5 acres overlooking the lake, but a walk inside the mansion would quickly explain the price. Water and fire had taken their toll, and a new roof was urgently needed. Residents feared that the property would fall into the wrong hands and that a developer would pick it up and bring down the building. Although the house has deep ties to the history of the city, it is not on any historical register.

In early 2013, Christy Manson, a California flight attendant who was planning to retire in Montana, made an offer. She had seen the list and, upon visiting the property, immediately fell in love. A few days after the sale closed, news of the mansion’s new owner made the headlines. Manson, who had no idea of ​​the building’s ties to the community, was shocked.

“I had never anticipated the huge projector on me when I bought it. It’s overwhelming, ”she told the Flathead Beacon in late 2013, months after buying it and unflattering rumors about the building’s future began to spread around the city. “I’m going to do whatever I can to preserve what I can, but it looks like the whole town thinks it has a say in what’s going on.”

Jasmine and Justin Morton, owners of Somers Mansion, pictured in one of the mansions common rooms on August 3, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flat head beacon

Manson’s restoration ambitions never came to fruition. The iconic yellow paint has continued to fade, with hopes of a return to stardom. In 2020, the house was quietly relisted, this time supported by a scorching real estate market. The asking price was $ 890,000.

That’s when people started texting Jasmine Morton, the little girl who years earlier had tried to enter the mansion with a plate of cookies, and who was now a 28-year-old lawyer in the Flathead Valley. Morton never fell in love with the building and often dreamed of buying it one day. Her husband, Justin Morton, learned of his love for the old house soon after he started dating. But when she started texting about the availability of the house, owning it still seemed like a distant dream. She decided to call a real estate agent and arrange a visit, if only to settle her continuing interest in looking inside.

“We weren’t really expecting to bid on the house,” she said. “I really just wanted to see inside.”

But what the Mortons found surprised them. While the building required a lot of work, the bones of the structure were stable. With a new roof and some time, they thought it could be restored to its former glory. It also didn’t hurt that Justin was a general contractor specializing in renovating older homes. The couple’s offer was accepted and Jasmine’s long-held dream of owning the Somers Mansion came true.

One of the first work orders was to put a new roof on the building, which happened earlier this year. Over the summer, Justin began working on the stone foundation in an effort to stabilize the structure. Jasmine said the long-term goal is to restore the mansion and move into one of the upstairs rooms. The rest of the house will be converted into accommodation – a nod to its early days as employee quarters for the tie factory – and rented out for weddings and other events.

One of the large rooms and a fireplace on the ground floor of Somers Mansion on July 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flat head beacon

The Mortons are currently restoring the nearby shed, and Jasmine said they hope to have the two-story structure rebuilt this year, with weddings already booked for next year. The mansion itself will take longer, but Justin said it has garnered a lot of interest from local entrepreneurs. Like Jasmine, they’re also curious to take a peek inside.

The Mortons are well aware of the local interest in the mansion and want to share it with the community. A few weeks after buying the house last winter, the Mortons decided to have a little open house the weekend after Thanksgiving. They posted a flyer in the Somers post office, believing it might attract the interest of a few dozen people. On the day of the open house, more than 400 people showed up.

Jasmine said they plan to hold similar events in the future as the restoration progresses, with the eventual goal of hosting community events there.

“We want to keep the community up to date with what’s going on with the mansion and we want to be transparent,” she said. “The community loves this building and we don’t want to just exclude them. “

For more information, visit SomersMansion.com.

Justin Franz is a Whitefish-based writer, photographer and editor. He worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years, and his work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times, and New York Times. Find it on justinfranz.com.

Editor’s Note: This story will appear in the fall edition of Flathead Living, on newsstands later this month.

A hallway and staircase to the top floor of Somers Mansion on July 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flat head beacon

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Keith Johnson

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