Renovating the Merc
Since taking over as owner of the Polebridge Mercantile five years ago, Will Hammerquist and his team have undertaken major upgrades to the property each winter.
Last year, Hammerquist and Jason Sawyer, the director of external sales, set out to rectify a problem that started at the foundation of their business: the leaning building.
To fix it, they spent the winter pouring a concrete foundation and constructing a new support wall that should keep the building standing slightly askew for the next century.
“Right now the whole building is still leaning,” Hammerquist said. “We didn’t get it straight, but it’s not going to keep moving.”
The process meant many frigid winter days full of mixing concrete in the cellar underneath the Mercantile and then digging out space to set the wall.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned this winter, it’s that concrete is heavy,” Hammerquist said.
The upgrade is less visible but no less important than any of Hammerquist’s other renovation projects from the past several years. In winters prior, he replaced some employee housing with much-needed bathroom facilities behind the Mercantile, and installed a solar power system that allows the building to garner the majority of its energy from the sun.
HAMMERQUIST SAID he and his team do every project with an eye toward preserving the history of the Mercantile - no small task in a place that is more than 100 years old.
“We have to do it all hand-hewn so it matches the look and feel,” he said. “The work we are doing is for the next 100 years.”
A man named Bill Adair began the business in 1904 on land across the river, in present-day Glacier National Park. In 1912, after a bridge over the river was built, Adair moved the Mercantile to its current campus.
Homesteaders on the North Fork could come to the store, then known as Adair’s, and place orders for whatever food items they’d need for the coming weeks.
Old ledgers kept by a local historical project show entries of people buying bacon, “spuds,” coffee, yeast and other items. Adair would go to town and fill the orders, then people would come back a week later to pick up their goods.
In other words, “100 years ago it was Amazon.com,” Hammerquist said.
As the years went on, the business changed to fit the needs of area residents. In 1994, then-owner Dan Kaufman installed a bakery, which remains one of the Mercantile’s present-day hallmarks.
The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a federal list of places deemed worthy of preservation because of their historical significance, in 1983.
“Being on the national register, it’s an honor,” Hammerquist said. “You have to understand that society has said this is an important part of our story.”
TODAY, THE North Fork is populated mostly by older people who have retired there, and the Mercantile mainly serves tourists who have traveled there to enjoy its seclusion for only a day or two.
Hammerquist admitted that much of the charm of the North Fork and Polebridge is the feeling that it hasn’t changed as much as the Flathead Valley thirty or so miles to the south. He said he evaluated each change through that lens. “There’s an old saying, the only change we like in the North Fork is the seasons,” he said. “As far as change goes in the Flathead Valley, Polebridge is doing alright. The common denominator is that everyone up here loves this place.”
He said the only money he spends on advertising is buying a 4-H pig at the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo each summer. He also said his crew is focused on facilitating the visitors that are already up the North Fork, rather than pulling in additional tourists to the area.
“Roughly three out of every 100 people who go to Glacier come to Polebridge.” Hammerquist said. “I don’t want to change that number.”
Over the past few seasons Hammerquist has kept the Mercantile open through the winter. This winter, however, he plans on closing the store for the season and working on other internal improvements to the structural integrity of the Mercantile.
“This is where I’ve always been and this is where I’ll always be,” he said.
The Polebridge Mercantile is open every day through Labor Day weekend from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. More information can be found on the company website at www.polebridgemerc.com.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or email@example.com.