A Small Hotel in the Land of Lewis and Clark

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Small Hotel in the Land of Lewis and Clark

THREE FORKS, MONTANA. Three Forks is situated at the spot where the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin Rivers join to form the headwaters of the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark passed through on their way to the Pacific and the Milwaukee Railroad established Three Forks as an important stop in the early years of the twentieth century. To accommodate visitors and business, a hotel built in 1862 was moved several miles to a site just across from the new train depot. A lobby and additional rooms were added and the Sacajawea Hotel opened in 1910.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in business, within three years, things had changed and the big plans for Three Forks failed to materialize. The train came less often and the hotel soon fell into disrepair.

Over the years, the hotel opened and closed multiple times as various people worked on reviving the old place. Rooms, once dormitory-style arrangements, were turned into private guest rooms. Later, in-room bathrooms were added. After all, I'm sure they reasoned, it's not that far from Bozeman and we should expect a crowd.

But no crowd materialized.

Then Dean Folkvord and his family bought the place.

The Folkvords have been farming wheat near Three Forks for three generations on what may be the highest (5,000 feet) wheat farm in America. Dean grew up on the farm, left long enough to get a degree in agriculture, then came home, took over, and expanded the business by adding a flour mill and bakery. His family company, Wheat Montana, supplies bread for the surrounding area and shops grains and flour across the country.

With a successful and growing business, Dean didn't exactly need a new project. But renovating and reopening the Sacajawea Hotel is his way of building up his community, of giving back to the place where he and his family have lived for years. He frankly admitted that turning a huge profit was not and is not his expectation. He cares about his hometown, its heritage, and its people.

Dean was just one of the local entrepreneurs we heard from at "Boom and Bust in America," a conference put on by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) held this week at the hotel. In a culture where people keep expecting the government to provide jobs, it's good to discuss the real source of jobs: entrepreneurs.

The Sacajawea Hotel renovation project provided employment for local carpenters, plumbers, electricians, landscapers, painters, and who knows how many others. Today the hotel employs desk clerks, maids, waiters and waitresses, a (fantastic) chef, cooks, dishwashers, bartenders, bellmen, and drivers. Trucks supplying food, drink, linens, and all the assorted other necessities of the hotel business arrive daily providing jobs for even more people. There is also the hope that as the hotel business grows, downtown Three Forks will grow along with it, creating jobs and prosperity for even more people.

Another entrepreneur told us, "We're small, but we're feeding twenty families." He was referring to his employees, but as another of the participants in the conference commented, he's also helping feed many more families by doing business with all his suppliers.

Theologian Michael Novak has written, "Social justice rightly understood is a specific habit of justice that is 'social' in two senses. First, the skills it requires are those of inspiring, working with, and organizing others to accomplish together a work of justice. ... The second characteristic of 'social justice rightly understood' is that it aims at the good of the city, not at the good of one agent only."

Too many people read that as the need for more and bigger government programs, seeing the state as the great dispenser of justice. This ignores St. Augustine's warning from the fifth century that the defining characteristic of what he called "the City of Man" is not love or justice, but the lust for power. Not that government action can never bring about justice, but that, as Novak goes on to say, "Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud."

I see in Dean Folkvord and the other entrepreneurs we've met this week the virtue of social justice. They're providing jobs and "feeding families" in their own companies and beyond and they're serving the needs of their customers. In pursuing their businesses they are doing good for their cities. They're improving the places where they live.

I realize that many entrepreneurs are not virtuous in any sense, but I've been refreshed by some here in Three Forks and the Bozeman area who are virtuous -- and by my stay at the beautifully restored Sacajawea Hotel.