New owners aim to restore and present the history of Bigfork Inn
Overlooking Electric Avenue, the Bigfork Inn has witnessed the evolution of this community as Bigfork grew from a modest, working-class town to the bustling tourist destination it is today. New owners Kelly and Michael Brooks plan to bring the history of the property to the forefront and update the building’s interior and front deck this summer.
“Our role is simply to continue to improve and stabilize the building to improve [Francois Zanni’s] here and we are proud to own something beautiful and historic, ”said Michael Brooks.
The couple bought the property in April and have already started work on improving the historic space. The terrace at the front of the building will be expanded this summer, and the couple also plan to cover the interior, replace current wall art with historic photos, and bring in new dining chairs.
“This is the first step in a global rejuvenation,” noted Michael.
The Brookses have had a home in Montana for 15 years and recently purchased a home in Woods Bay. Michael is the founder of an engineering software company EnterCalc, while Kelly is an interior designer. Michael, an avid boater, first discovered Bigfork on his way to Whitefish, and was drawn to the recreational opportunities on Flathead Lake and the “down to earth and common sense” people of the area.
While the couple are delighted to update the building, while preserving its history, they leave the operation of the restaurant in the capable hands of Chef François Zanni. Zanni revamped the restaurant’s menu in the fall of 2019 to include fine European dishes. This summer, the restaurant will continue to offer its popular wild game dishes made with elk, boar and rabbit, as well as fresh seafood dishes.
“We just lightened the menu a bit,” Zanni noted. “People always love the return of halibut and scallops.”
The biggest change diners will see this summer is the new terrace which is expected to be completed in June.
The new owners want to celebrate the history of the property – showcasing the history of the inn through old photographs and possibly exhibits with information about the previous owners.
“There’s so much going on here and it’s so historic… but it’s not in the limelight right now,” said Michael Brooks. “We know we’re going to make it fantastic.”
The Bigfork Inn is a local institution that has served as a gathering point for countless community events. Although the name suggests otherwise, the property has not been used as a guesthouse for decades. However, by the 1930s, the hotel offered accommodation to many workers and street vendors. But in 1937, tragedy struck and a fire burned down the inn. Some blamed the misalignment of the chimney while others said it was an oven that got too hot, according to the hostel’s website.
Ernie and Catherine O’Brien, then owners, got a loan to rebuild the inn, then called the Bigfork Hotel. Ernie O’Brien was a local institution in its own right, known as the “Mayor of Bigfork” for his strong personality. O’Brien modeled the new inn after the Swiss-style chalets in Glacier National Park, and after just seven months of construction, the new building was completed enough for guests to access their rooms by walking on planks. .
At the time, the Bigfork Hotel was the epicenter of the city’s activities and served as a home for local teachers and even the school principal. The hotel has also attracted a few high profile guests, including acclaimed Western artist Charlie Russell and comedian Red Skelton.
The Bigfork Hotel became the Bigfork Inn in 1972 and 10 years later it was bought by Bob and Suzie Keenan. The Keenans focused on the development of the restaurant and added a library, balcony and terrace to the Bigfork Inn. They operated the inn until 2018 when Zanni and his business partner Christopher Languein bought the property, which is now in the hands of the Brooks family.
The Brooks hope to take the Bigfork Inn into the future rather than the past.
“He’s an engineer; I’m an interior designer and we’ve done some really cool things together,” said Kelly Brooks.[Michael] loves that this is an iconic historic site… it’s special to him.
Journalist Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at 758-4433 or [email protected]