Back on track: Historic railroad hotel in Three Forks rolls out the red carpet

2011-11-27T00:10:00Z Back on track: Historic railroad hotel in Three Forks rolls out the red carpetBy TOM LUTEY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
November 27, 2011 12:10 am  • 

THREE FORKS — The knock on the historic Sacajawea Hotel for years was that, as beautiful as it once was, restoring its grandeur was going to take a lot of bread.

The stately white relic of the Milwaukee Railroad era was fading fast in the 1990s, when a couple bought and restored it. They only held on for a few years before selling it to a Floridian who polished it some more, then flipped it. By 2002 it was being eyed as some kind of rest home, to the community’s objection. “For sale” signs went up again.

Then, the hotel got a real bread man — a whole bread family, actually. The Folkvords, founders of the wildly successful Wheat Montana bread company bought the hotel for an undisclosed price, further advanced “the Sac’s” restoration and opened a fine dining restaurant to anchor it all.

“We’ve had a ton of local tourists, people from Bozeman, Helena, Billings, who just want to get away. We’ve had hunters and fly fishermen. We can rent the whole hotel for weddings,”

said Hillary Folkvord, hotel manager.

Dean Folkvord, Hillary’s father and Wheat Montana founder, bought the hotel with his wife in 2009. The couple shuttered the hotel for seven months to renovate it further. They brought much of the hotel’s historic elements forward, even unearthing a few historic artifacts along the way, but they also modernized it a bit.

The 31 hotel rooms now feature flat-screen televisions and king-size beds, along with spacious bathrooms decked out in subway tile. The basement features a bar with live poker. And the restaurant menu has been completely redone.

Pompey’s Grill, which anchors the Sac, has entrées like pistachio-crusted jumbo scallops for $27.95 and herb-crusted prime rib for $22.95. It also has starters like roasted-garlic cheesecake with sun-dried tomato-kalamata olive relish and crostini for $7.95. The restaurant also serves a self-indulgent Sunday brunch.

There are hamburgers on the bar menu and a weekly bison rib special. Tender cuts of beef are well-represented on the menu, but chef Matt Israel said early on he made the decision to make the menu stand out among the steak and chop-house samplings used by other out-of-the-way restaurants to lure customers.

“The first menu we put together was more of a steakhouse menu. It was good, but we wanted something different. We were kind of building an identity,” Israel said. “A lot of our customers are people who appreciate fine dining and people who are looking for something different.”

The Folkvords recruited Israel from the popular Bigfork restaurant Showtime, a new American cuisine restaurant that is a Folkvord family favorite.

Many of the family’s decisions about the Sac were based on travel preferences, Hillary Folkvord said. The family is well-traveled and prefers fine lodging and dining that’s unique. The Sac had all the makings of a special retreat, she said.

The Sacajawea Hotel was built in 1910 as a grand stopping point for Milwaukee Railroad passengers interested in traveling by stagecoach to Yellowstone National Park, roughly 100 miles away. Its deep, wrap-around porch sported 26 bright white columns and enough chairs for each guest in its 29 rooms to take in the Tobacco Root Mountains to southwest or the more southern Madison Range. Big armed, deep-cushioned loungers on the porch do the job now.

Just off the porch’s southern edge, there’s a rack of cruiser bicycles for guests interested in riding the old Milwaukee Road trail, a broad gravel path that rolls out for several miles, eventually stopping at the confluence of the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin Rivers. The trail is built on the railroad bed the Milwaukee abandoned in 1980. The history along the path dates back to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In the opposite direction, Lewis and Clark Caverns are less than 30 minutes up the state highway.

The front half of the Sac was constructed in 1910 by John Q. Adams, a railroad agent who saw the benefit of having a large hotel across the street from the Milwaukee Depot. The back of the hotel, an older, but equally large inn known as the Madison House, was originally located away from the Milwaukee in a pre-railroad town called Gallatin City. Madison House was moved to the site using rollers and horse teams.

Today, the Madison House is still a work in progress. The Folkvords have converted a lower portion of Madison House into a spa, but there’s still work going on in the building.

Pretty much everything in the front of the Sac has been beautifully restored. The lobby features rich hardwoods and deep boxed-beam ceilings with period wallpaper accents and warm, custard-colored plaster walls bordered by bungalow-style trim.

The restaurant is lit by bronze, Mission-style hanging lights with square shade holders and matching sconces. The ceiling wallpaper is ornate and trimmed in the crisp edges of the Craftsman design era.

“Everyone who comes here loves it,” Hillary Folkvord said. Then, shaking her head, she added. “This was going to be turned into a rest home training facility?”

Contact Tom Lutey at tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288.

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