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Bigfork, Montana Area Chamber of Commerce

Bigfork Works

Bigfork is more than 100 years old.  And there have been a lot of changes over the years. Like many western towns built on timber and the railroads, the early history was one of boom and bust. Now Bigfork has settled down into a community known for Flathead Lake, beautiful mountains, fine art, fine dining and theater. But behind the scenes, there are numerous businesses that provide the services necessary to live and work here year-round.  In other words, just like communities everywhere, small business is building and supporting Bigfork.

Bigfork is not your typical community of less than 1500 permanent residents. This is partly due to the fact that, while the town itself is not that large, it is on the southern edge of Flathead County, one of Montana’s fastest-growing counties. With a population of more than 87,000 people, Flathead County provides a large and ever-growing market for Bigfork’s attractions, shops and services.

From banking (four banks) to real estate to professional services, the Bigfork Chamber member list is more than 350 strong.  Some businesses have been here through several generations.  Other businesses opened twenty or thirty years ago. Some have been on Electric Avenue for less than 10 years. And at least one new business just opened its doors.

Back in 1949, Sam Stephens arrived in Bigfork from Williston, North Dakota, and opened Stephens Jewelry and Gift Shop. Sam was a watchmaker by trade, but he also knew that it was good business to provide more than watch repair. He sold jewelry and souvenirs in the front of the store and established a small liquor store in the back. In 1960, he moved the business across the street and by the 1970’s, he had converted from jewelry and souvenirs to a full-service liquor store. The store was re-named the Jug Tree in 1993 and is now owned and operated by his daughter, Donna Lawson.

Donna was born and raised in Bigfork, and has seen her town and Bigfork businesses change over the years. The Jug Tree is no different. “When I took over the business in 1993, we had very few wines in the store.  Now I have around 1,500 wines to go along with the 1,600 liquors.” Even with that extensive inventory, Donna does take special orders. It’s all about good customer service which is one of the hallmarks of Bigfork’s stores and galleries.

Donna calls the Bigfork business climate wholesome and friendly. She also notes that the business base has expanded from the village shops along Electric and Grand Avenues to a full range of shops and services north and south of Bigfork Bay.

Bigfork is an unincorporated village. Perhaps it’s the lack of a city government that makes Bigfork even more cohesive. In this regard, the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork, plays an important role. Originally known as the Bigfork Community Development Foundation, the group was formed thirty years ago with a goal of saving the Bigfork Playhouse building.  Since that first successful effort, the CFBB has continued to provide funding for cultural and economic endeavors. From building and maintaining the Bigfork Arts & Cultural Center to installing sidewalks and streetlamps, the CFBB works for the betterment of the community.  This all-volunteer organization manages to provide many services provided by city governments without the red tape and bureaucracy. A current project will provide new signage throughout the village, making it easier for our visitors to find their way.

Some of our newer businesses were founded by those who wanted to live and work close to home. Ryan Petersen, one of the owners of the UPS Store laughingly says that one of the reasons he and Brad Stodghill started the store was because he didn’t want to drive somewhere else in the valley to work. In the past ten years, Ryan says that he has seen more diversity in the businesses that open in Bigfork. Many of these businesses are the behind-the-scene services that support the community and thus keep more money in the local economy.

His business is no different. The UPS store is also a print shop for Bigfork. From fliers for special events to letterhead and business cards, they supply it.  Many one-person businesses find that a box in the UPS store provides the image of a full-service office. And, of course, they pack and ship just about anything anywhere.  This part of the operation becomes very evident as boxes pile up in the back room every spring and fall as many summer residents ship items to and from Bigfork.

Like Donna, Ryan says that one of the best things about doing business in Bigfork is “being able to work with great people throughout the community.”  What’s the worst thing? Winter can still be slow.

But even when it’s slow, there’s activity in Bigfork.  At the corner of Montana Highways 35 and 209, a brand new business just opened its doors. Whistling Andy Distillery is owned by four partners who are all involved with other businesses in the Flathead Valley. They felt that the time was right to start following their dream of owning a micro-distillery that uses American-made equipment and Montana-grown grains, fruits and botanicals.

At Whistling Andy, they distill vodka, rum, gin, bourbon and moonshine (the legal term for un-aged whiskey. Whenever possible, they buy and mill their grains in the Flathead Valley with the excess grain returned to the farmers as slurry for their livestock.

Two of the partners, Brian Anderson and Mike Marchetti, are doing the distilling. Brian’s mother, Linda Anderson, and Mike’s wife Dana are the other partners. Before Whistling Andy became a reality, the group did their research and developed a strong business plan that was quickly approved by their bank and local investors. As with all small businesses, the partners know that there’s a lot of hard work and long days ahead.  But they say “we love freedom, hard work, family and the simple pleasure of making and enjoying find hand-crafted spirits.  It distills down to gratitude.”

Along with the hand-crafted spirits, they offer a full espresso coffee bar and light lunch as well.  There are plenty of non-alcoholic beverages available, all made the traditional way without corn syrup.

The partners truly believe in the phrase “buy local”.  The UPS store prints their posters and fliers. The bar and wood work in the building is all reclaimed wood from Montana.  The bar tops were created from wood from the shores of Flathead Lake and Eastern Montana.  The cabinets were made from wood from an old tackles shop in Woods Bay. And the sign was created by local sign makers Meissenburg Designs of Bigfork.

But just who is Whistling Andy? That’s Brian’s dad and Linda’s husband.  He got the nickname while serving in the Air Force.

To learn more about business in Bigfork, visit  Media queries may be directed to Carol Beck-Edgar at 406-837-2061.

Listed in Bigfork: Where Flathead Lake Begins

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