Monday, November 13, 2006
THE PICKLER HOUSE: THE “PINK PALACE”
Among the humble homesteads of the prairie, there occasionally develops an exceptionally big or fancy house belonging to some particularly prosperous and outstanding citizen. There is none in Valier because the Conrad brother (two developed this area as partners) who was interested in such things ended up in Kalispell. The mansion he built there is maintained for tours and has been in movies. It’s probably worth seeing “Heaven’s Gate” just to see the house, which provided the setting for the cattlemen’s meeting. The daughter of that Conrad used to slip out onto the upstairs mezzanine (in the movie the space where Kristofferson plays billiards) so that she could watch her father’s Indian friends gathered in the half-light around the fireplace in the big hall. They told stories and in old age she remembered seeing their eyes gleam with firelight and memory.
The Kohrs’ ranch in Deer Lodge is another remarkable place, complete with the surrounding outbuildings and fields -- even a ghost who mysteriously rumples the beds. And the most fabulous of them all, in my opinion, is the “chateau” at Medora, North Dakota, a ranch house built by a French Marquis. It’s not as big, but FAR more elegant. Still, these exceptional places are kind of a problem. No one wants to disperse them and their sometimes quite precious contents, but what seems as first to be a valuable museum will, as time passes, be overwhelmed by ever more modern fabulous overreaching. Sometimes the mansions are in places where there simply isn’t the population density or traffic to support them with admissions. And yet the neighbors will fight to save them, feeling that it is a matter of reflected glory.
The following is from a brochure:
“The John and Alice Pickler home ...is a prairie Victorian home featuring 20 rooms in three stories. Construction began in 1882 when Major Pickler, a Civil War veteran, built his claim shanty on his pre-emption... There was no architect for the constructiion of this prairie mansion, which was built in stages and completed by 1894.
“The first part of the house comprised the present dining room alcove (re: cozy corner) and part of the attached master bedroom... The kitchen and front parlor were added in 1883-84 with a secret room under the kitchen, separate from the rest of the basement. It is entered through a trap door in the kitchen closet...
“The library and music room on the south side of the main floor are part of a two-story hotel building moved from the ghost town of LaFoon in about 1890. When the railroad by-passed LaFoon, the county seat, in favor of Faulkton, most of the buildings “took wheels” and moved here. The library is the largest room in the house, 30 X 30, featuring a large arch and window ...a book alcove, a...stained glass window and fireplace....It contained one of the largest and finest libraries in the state at the turn of the century with more than 2,500 volumes still on the shelves.
“The most striking woodwork is in the music room. Pre-cut wood panels could not be purchased at the time so a carpenter, Archibald Mitchell Strachan, was hired to fashion the fir panels in the room and staircase. He lived with the family the winter of 1893-94 completing the project. [His pay was a team of horses.]
“When the house was completed, local artist Charles T. Greener selected a color in 1894 between a salmon and coral and it has remained this “pinkish” color and hence the sometimes name “The Pink Castle."
“A large lamp always hung in the tower of this home in the early days to guide the traveler to a place of shelter. The flag always flew from the tower, showing the family’s patriotic sentiments.”
John Alfred Pickler was a midwesterner who entered the Civil War at age 18, rose to the rank of Captain in the Third Iowa Cavalry and then was given command of the 138th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry, and made a Major. He became a lawyer and then a Republican member of the US House of Representatives. He was a charter member of the Free and Accepted Masons and the Methodist Episcopalian church. His life might have made a better movie than "Heaven's Gate!"
The explanation the brochure suggests for the “secret basement” is Indian attacks and severe weather, but the Sioux of the area had been put on reservations since 1850, which was part of the reason this area could be homesteaded. I strongly suspect that given his command of the US Colored Infantry Regiment, the house may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad and the tower a beacon for them. I don’t know how long the need persisted after the Civil War. It could also have been a hiding place for something like liquor, but his wife was a force in the WCTU, as a good Methodist would be.
No Strachan except Archibald ever lived in this house, but because of his work there the family was quite imprinted with the place, particularly the library. Luckily, none of the family was ever inspired to paint their house pink.