From the top of a ladder one Wednesday afternoon, Mike Roessmann affixed a piece of history to the outer wall of the Garden Bar. His sign for Snow Country Construction and another for Coyote Roadhouse & Riverhouse joined other tokens of businesses past in their final resting place — memorialized in wood, metal and plastic in the outdoor bar area of the iconic Bigfork watering hole. Bar owner Mark “Mister” Langlois has dubbed the collection the sign tribute area — “graveyard” was a little too dark, he said. As much as the 100-some plaques offer decorative appeal, they also serve as a visual history of Bigfork’s economy.
When business owners close their doors, relocate or retire, their legacies are immortalized in the patio walls at the Garden. There’s a large red and white one for Hotel Bigfork, a cheery but faded blue sign for Kravingz Cafe and a simple wood panel for Osprey Furniture. There’s even one vintage highway sign that reads: “Bigfork Population 464.”
And these are just a smattering.
“We’re starting to run out of room,” Langlois said.
The vast majority of the signs are local to Bigfork, and Langlois said the tradition of hanging them up has been going for about 30 years. Among the oldest visages is a metal Texaco sign from the 1960s. The sign’s former owners had been using it as part of their chicken coop, but decided to ring up the bar one day to see if they could return the emblem to its city of origin.
“They traded it for a pitcher of beer and a hamburger,” Langlois recalled.
Also joining the wall Dec. 18, was a sign for Dr. Thomas Jenko’s medical practice, Bigfork Medical Clinic, which he operated for over 36 years. Jenko was the first full-time doctor in Bigfork and initially landed in the area to take a break after 11 straight years of medical education and residency.
Back in 1981, the town wasn’t much to speak of.
“There weren’t any condos or golf courses — there were a couple gas stations down on main street, the old playhouse…” Jenko said. “It just didn’t look like a place you could possibly start a medical clinic.”
But when folks learned there was a young doctor in town, they formed a recruitment committee in hopes of convincing him to stay. In those days, the only local source of medical care was a semi-retired urologist came to Bigfork once a week to see patients. The committee presented Jenko with a plan, explaining the need for a full-time physician and even worked out a deal with a local bank to secure a low interest rate so it would be easier for Jenko to purchase a building.
While he hadn’t originally set his sights on the small lakeshore community, the longer he stayed in Bigfork, the more the it grew on him.
To the town’s delight, Jenko decided to stay.
Jenko opened the doors to his clinic in 1982 and charged a whopping $17 for an office visit.
“Everybody predicted that we would fail because there weren’t enough people here, but we hung in there,” he said.
He cared for patients from all walks and stages of life — from newborn babes to the nursing home residents. Jenko was a true family doc, taking care of routine things like sports physicals along with surgery and emergency medicine.
“I was the traditional family doctor from the cradle to the grave. I saw lots and lots of kids grow up,” he said.
Seven years ago, he sold the practice to Kalispell Regional Healthcare and officially retired a year ago. Jenko felt that the hospital never gave him the proper send-off he deserved after 36 years in practice, and was talking to Langlois at a party when the bar owner suggested Jenko hang his sign at the Garden.
“I had a great career, I enjoyed it up until the very end. I knew it was time,” Jenko said. “I was surprised when we put it up at how much closure I felt by doing that. It was really like closing the book for me.”
Roessmann said he was extremely thankful for the opportunity to add both his and Jenko’s signs to the bar’s collection. And for other Bigfork locals looking to re-home their signs, all they have to do is give the Garden Bar a call.
“It’s basically a big history lesson,” Langlois said. “It’s an end of an era for them, but it’s a new beginning for here.” »
Editor Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.