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Home Stories: Kokoa Baldwin's Dresser and a Visit to the Conrad Mansion

I'm in love with Kim Leggett's newest book Home Stories: Design Ideas for Making a House a Home. In addition to pages and pages of beautiful, inspiring photography the book is filled with simple and practical design advice. At the heart of the book is this premise: Stories. They are all around us, ripe for the picking. When brought into our homes and woven into our lives they expand the footprint of where we've been and who we have become. Kim suggests the items brought in and styled in our homes should connect to our lives in a personal way -whether it is the history of the piece or a memory it evokes.

I'm often asked where I learned home decorating. As a creative person, I think it is in my nature to pull objects together in my home as a "work of art" so to speak. I mean for a whole semester I was an art major before completing degrees in English and Language Arts Education. In truth, I'm often a student of others like Kim. So when it comes down to it, this theory of story telling through design resonates with me. Our homes should be a reflection of our own narrative. I am often drawn to items which connect to my own story - an antique peppermint bottle from Virginia City, MT found while antiquing in Nashville, sits in my kitchen window, for example. Why? Because I spent a lot of summer days weeding hundreds of acres of peppermint on our Montana farm as kid. The smell of peppermint is nostalgic and relevant to my life. Plus, a weekend getaway to Nashville with my honey is worth remembering when I'm washing dirty dishes. Filled with a spring of dried flowers, the petite bottle looks pretty. But beyond taking up space or a mere decoration, this one little jar is a memento which speaks to my heart - the farm, Montana, adventures with my husband. After all, as Kim says, "Our homes should be put together with affection by our own hands, with the things we believe in and the people we love."

When I'm out hunting vintage treasures and antiques for my own home or for Red Barn Designs and the Shops at Station 8, I'm intrigued by the stories of pieces I unearth. It's part of the thrill of the hunt, so to speak. I will gravitate towards items connected to my own story - vintage farm toys and pastoral relics are high on my list. I also have a thing for scales, but I don't really want any analysis of why on that one, do you get what I mean? I'm sure a psychologist could have a fun time with that!

Sometimes I find the pieces, and sometimes the stories find me. Well, come to find out the signed Victorian era dresser I purchased last week came from a prominent local estate and one of the founding families of the Flathead Valley. The dresser was perhaps purchased by Kalispell lawyer, Mr. Marcus Dana Baldwin, for his daughter Kokoa (Little Girl) Baldwin (1882-1932). Or, the dresser was purchased by Charles Conrad as a part of the Conrad Mansion original furnishings.

Kokoa Baldwin married Charles Davenport Conrad at age 25. Charley Davenport Conrad was the son of Kalispell founder and businessman Charles E. Conrad and Alicia "Lettie" Conrad.

The newlyweds moved into the Conrad/Tobie house, and the dresser was part of their bedroom furnishings. If you are a history nerd or love antiques, put the Conrad Mansion on your list of places to visit in the area. The Tobie house is also part of a great self-guided walk through historic Kalispell.

You can download a map and guide from the Downtown Historical Society here.

Conrad/Tolbie House on 6th Ave E.

The Conrad Mansion, built on the Conrads’ 78-acre estate, stands as one of the most outstanding examples of Victorian elegance and period architecture in the Pacific Northwest. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the home was designed and built by noted Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter, who also designed Spokane’s Davenport Hotel. The mansion’s 26 fully-furnished rooms spanning 13,000 square feet were constructed in the Norman-style and built between 1892 and 1895. The Conrad/Tolbie house is also on the National Historic Register. The Conrad's story and influence on the Flathead Valley is an interesting tale to be sure. I can remember the first time I took an elementary field trip to the mansion - I think some of my classmates might have sleepwalked through the hallways, but I was fascinated! 90% of the mansion's furnishings are original.

I must have missed the x-wife's story in the tour of the mansion, but it is fascinating. Kokoa's father, Major Marcus Dana Baldwin, was appointed agent to the Peigan, Káínaa (“Bloods”), and the Siksikáwa (“Blackfoot”) bands of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation by President Grover Cleveland. He is noted with establishing Marias Pass. Marcus and his wife Sarah had a daughter while on the reservation. When the tribal elders first saw her, they exclaimed “Kokoa!”(which means “little girl” in the Blackfeet language). Kokoa is known as the first “white person” to be born on the reservation – and named by the prominent tribal members Two Guns White Calf, Little Dog, Big Nose, and Little Plume, who are all historical figures. Perhaps the most well-known of the Native Americans who named Kokoa is Chief Two Guns White Calf, whose face is on the back of every “Indian Head” nickel. The Baldwins moved to Demersville (the first settlement in the area) in 1889 and then to 3rd Ave. East in Kalispell.

Kokoa and Charles Conrad lived on the Conrad compound until their divorce in 1915. Kokoa took the dresser with her as part of the divorce. Kokoa spent time in Hollywood and appeared in a handful of rare silent films. The story goes she lied about her age to get the part. The Baldwin family owned Shelter Island on Flathead Lake (now the one of the most expensive properties in the World). The dresser was taken to the summer island home on Flathead Lake. The Baldwins, including Kokoa, seemed to have a real love for the outdoors and were excellent swimmers and marksmen. Kokoa died in 1932 from injuries while downhill skiing. When the Shelter Island property sold, my new friend purchased the dresser from the Baldwins and kept it in her possession until now.

The dresser is a classic piece of Americana. The company who made it - Mitchell & Rammelsberg - started in either 1836 or 1847 in Cincinnati. It made top-quality Victorian furniture with hand carving and steam-driven woodworking machines making the parts. It became Robert Mitchell Furniture Co. in 1881 and didn’t close until 1940.

Pieces often were marked “M & R,” or the inside of a drawer might be stamped “Mitchell & Rammelsberg.” Only a few pieces of a bedroom set were marked, so many pieces today are identified by the design and quality of the work. This example includes marking in the top drawer and the back as well as a maker’s signature, I think it is always important, regardless of the "condition" of the piece to do a bit of research on the maker, if available, before pulling out the can of paint. Had I slapped a fresh coat of paint, I would have certainly de-valued the piece. The furniture company worked in many styles, from Classical to Egyptian Revival. It also made dining sets, desks, sofas, hall trees, occasional tables and other pieces. Pieces from this company are highly sought after - a mahogany bedroom suite with bed, table, chairs and dressers sells for tens of thousands of dollars today at auctions like Christies, but they are scarce. I love the simplicity of this piece compared to the more ornate examples like this carved hall tree which I find too ostentatious for most Montana homes.

I wonder why Kokoa kept this dresser and how it connects to her vivid life and story. Did she love the simple organic shapes of the carvings on the edge? The scallops around the drawers? Was this piece a part of a bedroom set, I wonder. A gift from someone she loved or a valuable item worth fighting for? I imagine the finish on the bottom drawer and legs became damaged from too many wet towels piled high and a dripping swimsuits - a casualty of carefree days spent at the lake. Or was the dresser simply damaged in transit to the remote island or disregarded as part of a painful divorce? I don't know. But, it's pretty fun to think about and I suppose that is why so many people are drawn to the personality of piece and how it might speak to them. As Kim points out in Home Stories, "Antique pieces come with a story that can add to your own. When antiques become a part of your home, you invite bygone conversations and stories that can be passed on for generations to come." Kokoa's walnut Mitchell & Rammeslberg dresser is now available at the Shops at Station 8 in Columbia Falls, Montana.

Home Stories. Kim Leggett

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