It all began with apples. In the 1880’s, after much encouragement by local apple growers, a railroad line was brought into Montana’s Bitterroot Valley which is on the state’s western border with Idaho. Suddenly the previously remote valley was filled with orchardists and entrepreneurs trying to improve the distribution of water and to promote apple growing and the development of settlements. The promoters wanted to compete for the national and international apple markets. By 1900 the entire valley had been claimed and 25% had been subdivided. Apples had become the states largest crop. The biggest problem facing ongoing orchard expansion was the lack of water in the surprisingly dry region, so local entrepreneurs brought in “The Big Ditch,” an irrigation canal project which ran south to north up the valley for ninety miles. A Chicago financier agreed to bankroll the project and the Bitterroot Valley Irrigation Company, or BRVICO, was formed. Work began on the ditch in 1909 with the construction of a dam on Lake Como. This was an immense project for such a remote area at that time.
In 1909, the young (and later famous) American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1869- 1959), was approached by the BRVICO to design an elaborate land development on a huge tract of land near Stevensville. It was a highly opt imi s t ic enterprise. The plan was named “University Heights” and was a subdivision of nearby Darby. It was a summer “getaway” for the socially elite of Chicago and points east. It consisted of clusters of small cottage type dwellings and large indoor and outdoor recreation areas. Wright’s success with the commission earned him the position of designing the new city of “Bitterroot,” six miles north of Stevensville near the intersection of East Side Highway and Three Mile Road. Wright pulled out all the stops; the plan included the most modern of amenities, a theater, hospital, museum, schools, civic center, full-service Inn, water works, and more. The surrounding acreage was subdivided into building-lots for homes. This was the very first civic-design project for Wright and the plan was at first turned down by the local apple farmers and cattle ranchers for being too grandiose (this prodigious style of civic planning later became Wright’s trademark in America.) Wright, undaunted by the veto, resubmitted a scaled-down version of the project, the name was changed from the town of Bitterroot to “Bitterroot Village” and the new plan was accepted. Construction began at once on the lavish Bitterroot Inn, on the highest piece of ground overlooking the development with panoramic views in all directions. At that time Wright felt that Bitterroot Village was one of his most important architectural works. Wright planted most of the remaining sixteen-hundred acres of open space in the subdivision with apple trees and it became the largest apple orchard in the US. He advertised the Bitterroot Village lots in the newspapers of Chicago and the eastern seaboard in a calculated effort to attract “a specific social class” of investors to the valley. Construction on homes began there in 1909. That same year a man named Sanders sold 80 acres to the BRVICO.
In 1910, Dr. James T. Kent and Clara Louise Kent, while residing in Chicago, read about this unusual “frontier development investment opportunity” in Montana, that was being designed by fellow Chicagoan, Frank Lloyd Wright. The Ke n t ‘ s ended up buying a total of 40 adjoining acres, parcel by parcel, between 1911 and 1914 -including half of what had previously been Sander’s parcel. The Ke n t ‘ s built their house in 1912 on the northwestern point of the panhandle that shaped their property. Its architecture is believed to be after a Frank Lloyd Wright design -sort of a “Western Bungalow” look. The house had a large covered front-porch, a sitting room with fine leaded cut-glass windows, a formal dining room, a large kitchen, three bedrooms (two upstairs, one down), and a full cellar with a hand-dug well. After Kent died in the house in 1916, it was rumored to have a ghost in its basement. Local school children are still cautious when walking in the vicinity… The day I received the information about the ghost, I called Julian and we planned an immediate trip to Stevensville.
During my research for this issue of AH, I ran across this obscure obituary on Kent. The vision of Kent’s home being on a “40 acre orchard tract” in Stevensville Montana, so piqued my interest that I began making telephone calls to Montana. The possibility that Kent had owned property in Stevensville meant that it may still exist -there would be records of ownership, if any, somewhere in Montana. Ten phone calls later, I was talking with the bewildered owners of Kent’s home, at 4466 Hoover Lane, Stevensville, Montana!
The trip to visit kent *
Julian Winston and I traveled together from San Francisco to Stevensville on May 11, 1995 to visit the home in which Kent had lived and died, and to meet with the various people I had contacted in Montana regarding the project. It was a high-overcast day threatening to rain so we drove directly from the airport in Missoula to Kent’s grave site at the Sunnyside Cemetery in Stevensville -about an hours drive through some remarkably beautiful country. The sun came out as we searched the cemetery for Kent’s grave. We found it in the southeast corner -a large dark stone with years of oxidation streaks, standing loose but solid on its base which had sunken somewhat over the years -giving the stone a slight forward tip. The site is in otherwise good condition. Five miles away to the west across the grassy pasture lands, the blackened Bitterroot Mountains form a deeply furrowed headland that radiates away from the valley in a breathtaking array of snowdusted peaks. Julian and I were rendered speechless; we had finally arrived, after months of telephone and e-mail conversations, and now there was simply nothing left to say. We shook hands and fell silent, staring down at the thick green veldt that covered the grave at our feet. A meadowlark called out from overhead, surveying the solemn scene below.
We drove from the cemetery to Kent’s house on Hoover Lane, just two minutes away. There are only a few other houses and one little store in the area.
The terrain is a long open valley, an amphitheater rimmed on it’s west side by the Bitterroot Mountains, and on it’s east by the Sapphire Mountains. We spotted Kent’s * house as we approached it and our excitement mounted as we drove up the driveway. We were greeted by Don Mullen, the current owner with his wife Peggy, and their children. We only had a few minutes of light left so Julian and I made a quick photographic surveyof the grounds. The house now sits on six acres, and is in a state of active preservation with a few additions -one of the four bedrooms hasbeen a recent addition and the rearporch has been enclosed. There is alarge barn on the premises and an weathered chicken-coop. The house looms up in a substantial pose that can be seen from quite a distance away. There is a large cottonwood tree and two remaining (original) apple trees in the front yard. We ran out of film about the time the sun went down so we went back into the house and visited with the Mullen children, a lively bunch. Mrs. Leone (Fehrenkamp) Bass arrived and we all sat down for a great Montana home-cooked feast prepared by Peggy. We learned that Leone was born the same year Kent died, and she remembered that her family had bought the house “fromthe estate of a doctor” when she was four years old. At one point during dinner, I looked over at Julian who was beaming across the table at me and I instantly understood his excitement; here we were, sitting in Kent’s own dining room -well appointed with leaded-glass windows and lace curtains, an old piano -the large dining-table festooned with hardy fare and rimmed with delightful people -and the two of us with the indescribable honor of explaining Kent’s influence to the past and present tenants of his house!
The next day we met with Helen Bibler, director of the Bitterroot Valley Historical Society and curator if its beautiful museum, in nearby Hamilton. Helen is a prolific source of information and our conversations were endless as she led us through the myriad of interior rooms and vaults where we researched the old newspapers and rare books of the area. Afterwards, we gave a lecture on the significance of the work of J. T. Kent, to the assembled multitude in the museum’s large lecture hall and then returned to the house with four local ghost-investigating “sensitives” who I had contacted earlier. Dr. Jim Russell, Mary Russell and their two associates, Gregory and Mary Tilford, are each highly trained professionals with many allied skills and many years of experience working with western states law enforcement agencies. They typically go to a crime scene and get psychic-impressions of what happened. These impressions, combined with their other unusual skills, often lead to solve mysteries and crimes. I had asked Jim to join us on this trip to see if we could find any new information on Kent, he was instantly interested and agreed to bring his whole crew. We walked every inch of the house, including the cellar and the outbuildings. Jim felt he found the exact place where Kent had died in his brass bed, in the upstairs north-facing bedroom. He painted an amazingly accurate picture of Kent’s personality. It was uncanny coming from a person who otherwise knew nothing of Kent. Some new information came out which I am still investigating. We didn’t find any free-floating apparitions or anything else so ghostly -somewhat to Julian’s and my disappointment, but we are both glad that we had been compelled, by the irresistible lure of discovery, to make the otherwise fruitful pilgrimage to Kent’s home and final resting spot.
The Mullens have agreed to sell us the house (if we can raise the money…) To sweeten the deal they gave me some fresh-cut scions off of Kent’s apple trees which I have since grafted onto my own apple trees. I’ve since arranged to have NASH become the perpetual custodian of Kent’s gravesite. This means that any future maintenance required will automatically be taken care of, under our direction. I am working on designing a large stone monument with bronze plaque that will go in the front yard of 4466 Hoover Lane. We are looking into producing a five-day international conference at the Ravalli County Museum, in Hamilton, in 1996, with side-trip tours to Kent’s home, the cemetery, and more. I’ve just returned from the June IFH/NASH conference in Seattle where we produced a very successful fund-raising feast hosted by Charles and Melanie Grimes. These funds will pay for a certified appraisal of the property.
Greg Bedayn, RSHom, (NA), CCH, is the director of homeopathy at the Center for International Medicine in Oakland, CA. and teaches at the Hahnemann College of Homeopathy.