Did you know that the Conrad Mansion, completed in 1895, planned for electricity before it was even available in the Flathead Valley?

Exterior of the Conrad Mansion

In what’s arguably the most amazing home in Kalispell, electricity is its most amazing feature. Did you know that the Conrad Mansion, completed in 1895, planned for electricity before it was even available in the Flathead Valley? In comparison, Flathead Electric Cooperative was formed in 1937 to energize 117 farms – 42 years after the Mansion’s completion!

Charles Conrad, frequently described as a fearless Montana pioneer and businessman, founded Kalispell in 1892. Around the same time, he began building both a primitive hydroelectric plant in Bigfork, and his Kalispell dream home. Conrad planned to bring electricity to his home when both projects were finished, and he bought or leased land all the way from the hydropower plant’s site (about a mile upriver from the current Swan River plant), across the Flathead River, to the Conrad Mansion.

At the time, electricity was an up-and-coming idea in America, mostly seen in larger cities. Conrad Mansion docent Cindy Conner shared, “We don’t know where Conrad, a Fort Benton freighter and trader who made most of his fortune on the Missouri River, learned about electricity. What we do know is that he carefully planned his home to make the most of it.”

Light fixture.
All light fixtures in the mansion are original to the building. They were wired for electricity and also set up for carbide gas.

Most of the Mansion’s original wiring was to support lighting, as very few appliances were then powered by electricity – there are just 5 outlets. However, the Mansion’s 26 rooms were wired for an average of 5 lighting components ranging from chandeliers to sconces – that’s about 75 total light fixtures! Even the porch was lit. Each bed has a swing reading light, and there are several unusual lighting features, including a backlit wall made of glass bottles. In frontier Montana (which did not become a state until 1889), the Mansion must have been visible for many miles, glowing in the deep country dark.

The Mansion’s library, sponsored by Flathead Electric Cooperative, boasts especially beautiful lighting. Conrad Mansion Director Brit Clark notes, “Flathead Electric Cooperative’s consistent sponsorship of the library room is a highlight for our visitors – they love that our electric utility sponsors the room where we discuss the Mansion’s electric wiring, an innovation quite remarkable when you consider the home was built in 1895!”

In addition to lighting, Conrad designed a greenhouse on the Mansion’s south side with an electrically powered pump for a water feature that is as delightful today as it was in 1895. There is also an electric call system that allowed the Conrads and their employees to contact each other throughout the Mansion.

Antique buzzer communication system.
Charles Conrad designed his home to utilize the innovations of the day. This intercom system allowed the family and household staff to communicate with the Butler in the kitchen.

Alicia Conrad, the youngest of Conrad’s children, lived in the Mansion for most of her 89 years and donated it to the City of Kalispell in 1974. Their agreement recognized the Conrad Mansion as “a home of unique beauty and worthy of preservation for the edification and education of the young people of this nation.”

Since then, thousands of Montana school children, tourists, and locals have taken a Conrad Mansion tour and learned its story, including its forward-looking electrical design and hydropower-ed history (today, your electricity is largely created by hydropower projects in the Pacific Northwest, like the Libby and Hungry Horse dams, the lower Snake River dams, and more). The Museum supports itself via ticket and merchandise sales, grants, and support from local businesses.

Tia Robbin, Assistant General Manager-Administrative Services at the Co-op, shared, “The Co-op’s Trustees recently awarded a grant to underwrite 2023-2024 student tours of the Mansion. Learning local and Montana history, along with the history of hydropower and electricity in our area, is critical to the development of our area youth and is a wonderful partnership between the Co-op and the Conrad Mansion.” The grant was funded by unclaimed capital credit dollars.

In addition to sponsoring school tours for education, Flathead Electric Co-op sponsors the Library of the Conrad Mansion, where tour guides discuss the historical significance of Conrad’s electrification.

Clark added, “This latest partnership with the Co-op is especially impactful because the Mansion has never charged a student more than $1 to tour. Beginning in 2020, we made student tours free, and we want that to continue. We do not want finances to be a barrier for a student to learn about Montana.”

Your not-for-profit, member-owned Cooperative is proud to support the Conrad Mansion. To learn more, visit: The Conrad Mansion Museum | A Treasure of Northwest Montana

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