When Pete Darling came to Columbia Falls in 1929, he was just 9 months old. The historic Half Moon Fire was racing over the top of Teakettle Mountain and his father, Charlie, went out to fight it.
Charlie didn’t come home until October. That winter, the Darlings didn’t live in a house — there were none available to rent. The family lived in a tent in what is now Pinewood Park.
Darling grew up in Columbia Falls during the Great Depression and World War II — a town with half a dozen sawmills, dirt streets and a watering trough for horses in the town square.
There was a train depot at north end of Nucleus Avenue, and many people traveled by train. The Galloping Goose, a single train car with a gas engine, carried mail and passengers back and forth to Kalispell. Darling rode the Galloping Goose on a regular basis by himself at the age of 10.
Early on, Charlie didn’t make a lot of money and the family moved often.
“If you were renting a house for $10 a month and you could find one for $8, you moved,” Darling said. “He must have got it down to a $1 because we moved a lot.”
There were large tracts of vacant land in Columbia Falls back then. Darling hunted deer where the Cedar Drive subdivision now overlooks the Flathead River.
Schools also have come and gone. The Columbus School sat on the east side of town where the tennis courts are today. The Talbott School sat north of Glacier Gateway School. Both were torn down.
Darling recalled that the Talbott School floors were so heavily oiled that if the school had caught on fire, it would have been an inferno. The school’s football field is Plum Creek’s lumber yard today — one end was rocks, the other clay.
“When we punted, we punted toward the rocks,” Darling recalled.
Talbott School also had an odd gym with a low deck over the basketball court. Spectators looked down at the game below, but if a player tried to make a pass underneath, it better be straight or it would hit the ceiling, he said.
The town square on Nucleus Avenue was where the former Glacier Discovery Square sits today. It had a gazebo and an open yard.
“We used to play football in it,” Darling said.
The Masonic Lodge didn’t exist — it was a big pit. Columbia Falls had lots of pits back then, he said — if a project needed gravel, they dug a hole.
While many old buildings are gone, many still remain. What is now the Columbia Bar was a dance hall owned by a Chinese man named Mar Yoo. Yoo threw pennies onto the street, and neighborhood kids would race around picking them up. Darling’s mother, Mabel, played the piano at dances, and Charlie sometimes played the fiddle.
Yoo was also a good cook, and the Darlings took him on fishing expeditions up the South Fork. Darling made the fires, and Yoo cooked the fish in big cast-iron pans.
There was no money, and Charlie often worked for farmers early on. He’d bring home produce that Mabel would can. The surplus went to neighbors, and neighbors gave their surplus to the Darlings. That’s how people got along.
The family saw its fair share of tragedy. Two of Darling’s younger brothers died from burns in an accident with a lantern. Townspeople took up a collection for the family, and Darling recalled a bag of cash being delivered to his father.
“’I never knew there was that much money in Columbia Falls,’” Darling recalled his father saying.
But there were good times, too. Kids made do with what they had. They played outdoors.
The roads were different back then, and Darling recalled sliding on a sled from near the top of Nucleus Avenue all the way down to Mosquito Flats.
There was a lumber mill just south of what is now River’s Edge Park, and a manmade slough was used to ferry in logs floated down the Flathead River. Rough-sawn lumber was run up the tracks to be finished at the Superior Building Co., where the former Great Northern Bark Co. now operates north of the viaduct.
Cows were common, too.
“Everybody had a cow when I was young,” Darling said.
Owners got a picket pin, tied the cow to it and then moved the cow from vacant lot to vacant lot for pasturing.
There was no Meadow Lake Resort — it was a meadow and a pond.
“We’d go out and swim there,” Darling said.
The city has grown a lot since then.
Darling recalled laying on the railroad tracks as a kid, across from what is now Plum Creek’s Cedar Palace headquarters, and plinking away at the gophers with a rifle.
Today, he’d be shooting into a neighborhood.
C-Falls Citizen of the Year
While Pete Darling is a walking encyclopedia of Columbia Falls history, he’s also spent thousands of hours working for the community as well.
For decades, Darling has volunteered at the Woodlawn Cemetery as a board member and groundskeeper-at-large.
For his community service over the years, the Columbia Falls Lions Club named Darling its Citizen of Year for 2014.