By Robert Lucke
In 1940 a pioneer Havre family, Francis and Laened Black, built a log-sided lodge in a secluded and heavily wooded Bear Paw mountain gulch. The Blacks were second-generation Havre jewelers, owning Black's Jewelry, which had opened in 1902.
For years the Blacks had dreamed of owning a vacation retreat. In fact, they had purchased a lot close to the Lake McDonald Hotel in Glacier National Park for that purpose. However, working six days a week in the store, it soon became apparent that Lake McDonald was too far away to utilize the way they wanted to. So they purchased a potato patch and adjacent forested lands in the Bear Paws and built their dream house.
Shaped like a large T, the house had a large living room with a huge rock fireplace, a bedroom, kitchen and loft. The approach to the lodge was over a footbridge crossing a roaring mountain creek and up a tiny path to the shuttered house, complete with Dutch doors.
The Blacks loved trees and planted them constantly in the early years. Consequently the potato patch became a heavy forest and what had been grassy meadows became dark bowers beneath the trees.
Until the end of their lives, the Blacks spent as much time as they possibly could at this beautiful spot that meant so much to them.
The Blacks died in 1996 and 1997. Their two daughters wondered what to do with the cabin. It wasn't until three years ago that one daughter and her husband, Cindy and Buck Schirka who lived in a Chicago suburb, decided to come west, build a wing onto the original cabin, making it into a year-round residence.
Most amazing about the construction of the new wing, which more than doubled the original size of the structure, was that whenever possible the new was made to match the old as closely as possible. A visit to the cabin today quickly shows the time and effort that was taken to blend the new with the old.
Both the Schirkas frequently asked each other, "What are we doing?" as the melting snow ran down the inside walls and power outages left them with romantic candlelight and cooking potato soup on a wood-burning stove that seemed to echo Ma and Pa Kettle. Both of the Schirkas frequently asked each other during construction if this was what Francis and Laened would have done and would they approve of the finished product? Were the Blacks to walk up the path to the house, it would be hard for them to tell where their construction stopped and their children's construction started.
The Schirkas added a huge kitchen and dining room, a full bath, utility room, and second loft area. What had been the kitchen in the original lodge became a guest bedroom in the remodeled plan. In addition, the Schirkas had a unique rock and log patio built overlooking the view down the gulch to various Bear Paw mountain peaks.
So why go to all this work in a place so far away from home?
"This is home to us," said Cindy Schirka. "I grew up in this cabin and Buck hunted here with Dad for many years. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Life has a way of working out in ways you may never have imagined."
It was really important for both of them to be true to the original lines of the cabin and to enhance what was there rather than change.
"We wanted to build this the way that Mom and Dad might have done," Cindy Schirka said. "And yet we had to build it to meet our needs as well. I think we have done both with the help of a wonderful construction team who were so accommodating and so painstaking to our wishes that they became a part of our family."
One thing that both Schirkas have learned is that the work is never really done in a project like that. This spring they are planting grass and cleaning up parts of the gulch that have been a mess since the 1960s. And then there are dreams of a garage. But that is a story for another day.
For now though, the Schirkas have built a home about which the Blacks would be brimming over with pride. Not just a retreat for themselves but a continuation of the Blacks' marvelous Bear Paw legacy.