This year marks the centennial celebration for one of America's great treasures, Glacier National Park. Located in northwest Montana, the park consists of 1.4 million acres of some of the most pristine wilderness on the planet, with breathtaking views all along the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road that climaxes at the 6,646-foot Logan's Pass. With all kinds of events and activities planned throughout the year, visitors might discover another treasure -- the Belton Chalet.
A lodge on the edge of the park in West Glacier with 25 rooms and two cottages, the Swiss-style chalet just happens to be celebrating its 100th birthday this year too. Constructed for the Great Northern Railway, the lodge -- which first opened its doors on June 27, 1910 -- has a colorful early history, but it was closed during World War II and didn't fully reopen to the public until 1999. Husband-and-wife duo Cas Still, 63, and Andy Baxter, 52, bought the Belton in 1996, set about restoring it, and today have one Montana's hotel gems and one of the state's best restaurants. (Try the emu. Seriously. It's delicious.)
As the Belton prepared for the 100-year mark on June 27, Baxter was out-and-about fixing up the property, so Still shared the ins-and-outs of running a historic hotel, the centennial happenings, and the importance of bear repellent.
Are you and your husband native Montanans?
No, we moved here from Key West in 1987. He was a charter sailboat captain and I held every type of tourism job you can have -- bartender, housekeeper, property manager. Our specialty in Key West had been restoring old Victorian buildings, so we had a lot of experience, although we had never run a hotel before.
Did you move to Montana to take over the Belton Chalet?
We were here 10 years before we bought the Belton. We had two small children and wanted an affordable place to live where we could have a garden and horses. Andy spent three years restoring a small cabin on Flathead Lake, then he continued doing the same type of work on other houses.
His skills must have come in handy when you purchased the Belton.
He's known around here as "Handy Andy." All our general contractors were guys he'd worked for in the past. He got to be the boss, though, which is kind of fun.
Can you give us a quick history on the Belton's previous owners?
The Great Northern Railway ran it until shutting down the hotel during World War II. After the war, motels became a lot more popular, so it didn't reopen to the public until we took it over. It was sold to private hands, and at some point, the Luding family purchased it. They ran the back-country chalets in the park and always thought they would get the Belton back up and running, but never did. Kay Luding saved the Belton, though. It was suppose to be torn down in the 1970s when the highway was expanded, but she got it listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The bar and restaurant was open back then, and the Tap Room was known as one of the rowdiest spots in the area. Around 1990, Kay Luding went into a nursing home and the place was sold for back taxes. Everything was shuttered.
When did you purchase it and what was the sale price?
We bought it in 1996 for around six-figures. The price was low and we got a straight bank loan.
What kind of condition was the lodge in?
Structurally, it was in fine shape, but the restoration was a lot more complex that we initially thought. We expected just to do a clean up. The problems started that first winter, which had one of the worst snowfalls on record. The summer of 1997 was spent rebuilding the roofs. There were also huge problems with water runoff and the whole place needed an electrical upgrade because it was the same system that was put in sometime between 1913 and 1920. It needed all new electricity and plumbing. I estimate we put in $2 million.
Did you and Andy ever get into the mindset that the restoration wasn't going to work out?
Our mindset was that we've dumped a hell of a lot of money into the place and we have to get it done.
Was there a lot of old stuff that you hauled out of the Belton?
Tons. It was floor to ceiling in every room. I don't think anybody threw anything out. We made hundreds of trips to the industrial landfill. There was 60 years worth of stuff, everything from the oak antiques you see in the rooms today, to a really great pair of leather fringed rock-and-roll pants from the 1970s. There were scrapbooks, lithographs, paintings and receipt books -- all kinds of historical items that we display in the hotel. Cleaning out the Belton took an entire year.
What else went into getting it ready for the public?
We restored old furniture, built stained-glass windows, repaired the floor, excavated and reconstructed the stone pillars out front. It was an enormous process, so we opened the Belton in phases. The restaurant opened first. We served microwavable nachos. As far as lodging, we had a brief trial run in 1998. By 1999, it wasn't completely finished, but we were open to the public.
Was it a big deal locally when it reopened?
Yes. People in the community were always coming around, very interested in our efforts. It's been an important landmark here forever. It's been incredible. Most of our employees are people who live in the area and we have a low turnover rate.
When did you feel you reached the point where the Belton became what you envisioned?
I'd say about five years ago. Our people are loyal and stuck with our vision of what the Belton could be.
How have you been affected by the recession?
We all felt it the last couple of years, but this summer is looking a lot better. The centennial has energized people to come visit Glacier. Business is booming. We still have a few open rooms, but I don't think they are going to last long.
Does the Belton have a typical guest?
We get all kinds. We have outdoor lovers, hikers, skiers, bicyclists and fishermen. We also get train enthusiasts and those who just want to hang out on the porch. I'd also say 75 percent of people come for the restaurant, whether they're guests or not. We host a lot of weddings and once people come, they're hooked. We get plenty of repeat visitors. After Labor Day, we generally see a lot more retirees. The cottages and the restaurant are open in the winter. That's all locals, and it's a lot more laid-back. The weather can be brutal, snow removal is a major issue, but a lot of people like to just put their feet up and sit in front of the fireplace.
The restaurant is that big of a draw?
Our chef, Melissa Mangold, is amazing. She started as the sous chef and took over the kitchen in 2006. We serve all local meats and vegetables. Andy and I own a one-acre orchard called Still Back There, so we grow the cherries, apples, plums, raspberries and huckleberries. We use them in our homemade fruit pies and baked goods.
The Belton is technically outside of Glacier Park. Is there competition with the chalets inside?
I'd say we offer something different, but it is a congenial relationship. The red "Jammer" tour buses pick up and drop off guests here. Everyone connected to Glacier Park knows we're in this together.
What celebrations do you have planned throughout the year?
We held a big New Year's Eve party with more than 100 guests. It was such a big hit we may do it again. The actual birthday party is June 27, where we will be having cake, guest speakers like members of the Luding family, live music and a historic art show. We're also hosting various tours throughout the summer and an employee reunion in September. I also write poetry, so we're also having a free poetry reading on June 25 where contest winners will recite their work. Adding the things you love to your job makes it that much more enjoyable.
What's the biggest challenge in running the Belton?
For me, it's being open to change, letting go of my views as to how things should be and letting others contribute. It's a challenge, but the young people who help us run it are the best part. New ideas can revitalize the most historic of institutions.
Do you have trouble with wildlife on the property?
The deer love our tulips in the spring and the bears love our apple tree in the fall. We're always on the lookout, trying to beat the bears to the fruit.
I'm guessing a lot of tourists are curious about the bears.
We get a lot of interest about bears -- they are a Glacier park draw themselves. You can't take bear spray on airplanes anymore, so we rent it to guests. The park rangers are great about answering questions and keeping watch on the bear population.
What are your future plans for the Belton?
Our son works here now, and our daughter has in the past, and they're both interested in running it, as our are longtime employees. We'll figure out a way to keep it in the family. We want to add some rooms. We'll use recycled materials, so our new ones look like the old ones.
Name: Cas Still and Andy Baxter
Company: Belton Chalet
Ages: 63 and 52
Location: West Glacier, Mont.
Employees: 50 (high-season)
2010 Projected Revenue: Undisclosed
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 6/24/10.
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