Ronald Buentemeier in his lookout tower in Whitefish. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News)
Ronald Buentemeier has probably one of the most unique yard ornaments in the Flathead Valley: A real, and fully working, vintage fire lookout tower.
The tower sits just off the driveway of his rural Whitefish home. If you’re not looking, you’d drive right by it.
The lookout used to sit on the south face of the Whitefish Range, not far from the summit of Big Mountain. In the 1910s there were a lot of fires on the face and the lookout afforded a view into the canyons that would be missed from other lookouts and locations.
The 40-foot lookout was manned for years, sitting on Forest Service lands that were originally donated to the Service by the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co.
Over the years the land would change hands and the lookout fell out of use. It eventually ended up on Stoltze’s property again and was declared surplus, so rather than cut it up for scrap, Buentemeier brought it home.
It sat there for several years before he had it put up in his yard.
Inside it’s a tight fit, but fully functional, with a fire finder and the typical 360-degree views afforded by a lookout tower, though many of the trees in the yard are taller than the tower, so they block the views.
(Buentemeier considered trimming the trees a bit, but they’re nice, mature trees and he didn’t want to lop the tops off just for a view.)
At any rate, he’s the only private homeowner that he knows of that has a vintage fire lookout tower in his yard. It’s just a little slice of history from a distinguished career as a forester, and later, a manager for Stoltze. The F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company in Columbia Falls is truly the last of a dying breed in the West — an independent, family-owned lumber mill and tree farm.
Buentemeier worked for the company for 43 years and is an expert on the history of F.H. Stoltze, whose beginnings start in Minnesota.
Stoltze started out in the hardware business in the St. Paul, Minnesota area in the late 1800s. He became acquainted with James Hill, who was building the Empire Builder Railroad across the Midwest to Montana.
Hill commissioned Stoltze to build 10 towns along the route in North Dakota, which he did. But the two then had a falling out, but Stoltze continued to look West for business opportunities.
In 1908 Stoltze started his first mill in Kila, but it burned down, so he started another one not too far away in a place called Wild Bill in the Flathead Valley, and then another in 1912 on Hodgson Road near the river.
Eventually, he ended up at the mill’s current location at Half Moon in 1918.
Buentenmeier noted that employee housing was an issue even back then.
The company moved about 18 houses from Hodgson Road to Half Moon for its employees. They apparently were able to skid them over the snow during the frigid winter months, pulled by horse trains.
The Stoltze mill even provided electricity to the homes starting in 1936. When the boiler stopped at 8 p.m. the lights went out. All told, there were about 38 company homes for employees.
Stoltze, over the years, also bought land near the mill, eventually acquiring about 10,000 acres of land on the south face of the Whitefish Range.
Buentenmeier himself also has a long history in the local woods. Like Stoltze, his family came here from Minnesota as well, when D.C. Dunham started Plum Creek in 1945.
Buentenmeier recalled a young white collie dog that kept him out of trouble in his youth in the logging camps. He would study forestry at the University of Montana and shortly thereafter landed a job with Stoltze in 1964 and retired in 2007 — beginning as a forest engineer and working his way up to vice president of the company.
He laments the state of timber management today on the national forests. He notes that proper management includes a mix of all native species of trees on the landscape that are properly thinned and cared for.
It not only makes for a healthier forest, but it makes a more fire-resilient one as well.
His favorite species?
“Western larch,” he said.
His home is in an idyllic forest, one with a host of birds and red squirrels. He even put a log up to the bird bath so the squirrels can get a drink of water.
“They’re my buddies,” he said.
On Sunday, Aug. 28 at 2 p.m. Buentemeier will give a free talk at the Whitefish Community Center. His presentation will further focus on the history of F. H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company and the collaboration of the Great Northern Railroad. The Whitefish Community Center is proudly hosting this presentation for community members to enjoy hearing about the history of logging in the valley.
For more information call the Community Center at (406) 862-4923.