KALISPELL - In Charles and Alicia Conrad's lives, there was a vision about death.
As newly born Kalispell bustled around them in 1900, the Conrads decided a public cemetery was needed to complement the rest of the development taking shape at the turn of the century.
Charles took the lead in the project, but he and his wife together selected a hillside east of Kalispell that offered panoramic views of the Flathead Valley. History books say it was a special place where the couple would go horseback riding on summer evenings.
Charles didn't live to see the cemetery, though. After his untimely death from tuberculosis, according to cemetery records, he was the first person buried there, on Nov. 30, 1902.
One hundred years later, landscape architects still marvel at the design of the expansive, 87-acre C.E. Conrad Memorial Cemetery. The cemetery's centennial will be observed with an exhibit being prepared for display at Central School Museum and the Conrad Mansion. Tours of the grounds are planned next spring.
The winter months will be used to fully research the history of the grounds, cemetery director James Korn said. Local historian Kathy McKay is compiling the paperwork needed to have the cemetery designated a National Historic Site.
"I've discovered that other than being a pretty place, the cemetery has distinctive features," Korn said.
Several landscape architects have told him the cemetery has a classic design used for municipal parks and cemeteries in the eastern U.S. in the late 1800s. Pathways in a "looping" design wind throughout the grounds and trees are grouped to provide shade yet preserve the views. Upright grave monuments are interspersed with clear spaces to create a park-like effect.
Conrad Cemetery was designed by A.W. Hobert in Minneapolis, leading local historians to speculate that Great Northern Railway founder James J. Hill, who was closely associated with the Conrads, may have made arrangements to have the design work done there.
After her husband's death, Alicia Conrad took charge of the project and saw it through to completion. A pamphlet produced by the C.E. Conrad Memorial Cemetery Association in 1956 noted that Alicia Conrad was "ably assisted" by J.B. Gibson, J. Harrington Edwards and George Grubb.
She persuaded Grubb, a local attorney, to prepare a bill for the Montana Legislature that created a perpetual care system for cemeteries in Montana. The legislation provided for an interest-bearing fund to be built up by setting aside a certain percentage of the sale price of each lot, assuring that burial grounds could be maintained perpetually after all of a cemetery's lots were sold.
"Apparently from reading the things that have been written, they were trying to create something lasting that wouldn't end up a weed patch," Korn said. "That was pretty visionary for a hundred years ago."
After the legislation passed in 1905, Alicia Conrad deeded the cemetery property to the newly created cemetery association as a memorial and gift to the community and "as a trust for public benefit" from her late husband.
By 1908 a mausoleum had been built for the Conrad family. Among the cemetery records is a letter from Alicia to H.C. Keith, one of 15 men in the original incorporation committee, inviting him to the mausoleum interment.
"All that is mortal of my dear husband will be quietly consigned to its permanent resting place," she wrote.
The mausoleum, on a lofty point in the northeast corner of the cemetery, contains five members of the Conrad family. There's one empty space because their daughter, Alicia Conrad Campbell, chose to be buried outside the mausoleum next to her husband's grave.
Behind the mausoleum, the land drops steeply to the Stillwater River, and can be descended by using the "fairy steps," a winding stone staircase that's become entwined with myth and fantasy through the years.
The steps were built for Alicia Conrad's use.
"Mrs. Conrad would take a carriage to the back side and use the fairy steps to get to the mausoleum," Korn said. "She used a carriage road which no longer exists."
As legend has it, the steps have a magical quality to them.
"There's a lot of fantasy about the fairy steps," he said. "They say if you count the steps going down, it's a different number than when you count them going up. There's a lot of intrigue there."
Over the past 100 years, 16,400 people have been buried in Conrad Cemetery, and more than 3,500 grave sites remain for sale.
"It looks to me we have enough space for another 200 years," Korn said. Two sections of the cemetery near the water tower are next in line for development.
Plans are being made to expand the veterans section using a piece of ground to the west of the existing veterans memorial.
The ball fields known as the Conrad Complex are part of the cemetery and could one day be used as burial grounds, Korn said, but no one expects that to happen for at least a couple hundred years. The cemetery association grants Flathead County use of the sports complex, and derives no income from it.
"Again, it shows the forethought and the vision that created and fulfilled the original intent of the Conrads," he said.
The cemetery association continues to be operated by a board of five trustees, as outlined in the 1905 legislation.
"The trustees make every attempt to keep costs down, both in the sale of grave sites and burial fees," Korn said. "That's the way the cemetery was set out and run, to give the best service and keep costs minimal."
Korn took over as director in March, replacing Clark Spain, who had served as director for 12 years.
"I grew up coming to the cemetery with my father, to decorate graves," Korn said. "I understood from that, that this was a special place."
Public use also continues to be an integral part of the scenic cemetery.
"It's a pleasant place, quiet, with lots of animals," Korn said. "We've encouraged people to use the area in a respectful way."