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Rebuilding Community

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at Clark Fork's Cabinet Mountain Bar & Grill

Culminating in a ceremony made famous by the “Golden Spike” in May of 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were joined, for the first time linking east coast with west. A nation hungry for expansion after the Civil War embarked on adventure to points west – and rumors of mineral wealth brought hardy pioneers to the north Idaho Panhandle. Mining was a gem in Clarksfork’s crown, and timber made her a queen. In the 1880 census, the county known as Kootenai (encompassing an area roughly comparable to today’s Boundary, Bonner, Kootenai, Benewah and Latah counties) boasted 517 resident pioneers. By the turn of the new century, that number had grown to 10,216. Clarksfork was a bustling community when one of those pioneers, Fritz Vogel, came to town.

“Great grandpa Fritz worked his way over here from Switzerland,” explained Sissy (Craig) Snider one day, sitting under a wall of photos at the Cabinet Mountain Bar and Grill in Clark Fork. “He had a pole company here in town. He bought property across the river, and then bought property by the ball park.” He also married Catherine Pavliski and raised seven children, part of the first generation of children born right here in Clark Fork. “My Grandpa Frank (born in 1894) grew a huge garden,” Sissy smiled. “Everybody loved him and he fed most of this town.”

Feeding most of the town became a family tradition, one that Sissy slipped on like a well-fitting glove last year when she took over the lease on the Cabinet Mountain. “I did it because of the townspeople, mostly,” she said. “I really wanted to keep the restaurant local.”

Sissy’s friend, Vicki Bennett (born and raised a Sjoden in Clark Fork) laughingly suggests Sissy’s motivation had more to do with being able to hang around the restaurant all day and visit with residents, a charge Sissy doesn’t deny. “Everyone made fun of me when I took it over,” she admitted. “I would be working in the bar, and have to go in the restaurant for something, and would end up visiting with someone there. By the time I finally got back to the bar, customers were telling me they thought they were supposed to fix their own drinks.”

That love of the people who make up this community, and of the stories of those who worked hard to carve a life out of these mountains, quickly became evident in the restaurant itself. “The wall was ugly,” Vicki laughed, “and we started hanging stuff up just to cover the ugly wallpaper.”

“I brought down a bunch of old, Vogel family pictures,” Sissy said. “People thought they were cool.” And it grew. “Pat Derr and Nick Dougharty brought me pictures. Then the Ruens and the Dawsons.” Soon, over 60 old photographs were gracing the walls of the restaurant and the Cabinet Mountain became an unofficial museum, displaying the history of the town’s founding families.

“You wouldn’t believe the strangers who come in to the restaurant, and then just spend time looking,” Sissy said. “We get a lot of travelers and tourists who stop and they all look.” But the ones really captured by the wall are the locals whose parents’ and grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ pictures are displayed there. “Somebody is always walking up and down this wall. And I still have more pictures to hang.”

Sissy’s family, of course, is well represented and she has stories to tell about all of them. “My mother cooked for my grandfather’s hay crew all the time. Everyone in town still talks about the meals she used to cook on an old wood stove.” Many of the pictures presented, in fact, feature people who worked on one of those hay or branding crews at one time or another. “I really like this picture,” Sissy said, pointing to a group of laughing young men standing in front of that landmark barn. “Some of these guys are the third generation to brand cattle and hay for my grandfather.”

Vicki, by virtue of her friendship with Sissy and her untiring efforts for projects the pair can take on to benefit the community, has a whole wall of photos for her own family, including a couple of poems written by her grandfather, Walter Flemming.

“When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure,” reads a sign in the midst of the photos. “A lot of the old-timers are leaving us,” Sissy explained. “We want to make sure we remember them.”

The commitment made by this pair to the community extends far beyond hanging a few photographs, or even keeping up a family tradition of feeding the community and feeding them well. Working with the Chamber of Commerce, they have made holiday wreaths to hang all over town, stayed up baking all night long to deliver cookies to over 40 families, and put on a free Thanksgiving dinner for over 50 people in the community.

“Shirley (Dawson) Crawford told me my dad would come out to their place way down Lightning Creek,” Vicki said. “He would drive as far as he could go, and then hike the rest of the way in, bringing them fruit and gifts at Christmas.”

“Lots of families would give a portion of the meat they got to the older people in the community,” Sissy said. “These are the kinds of things that built this community and everyone remembers those stories.” Re-building that kind of community family is the drive behind all the projects this pair comes up with.

In the midst of all the community service, of course, Sissy also manages the restaurant and bar. “Everything really rides on who’s working for you,” she explained, “and I’ve been blessed. Carol Hoppe came in with me, and I couldn’t do it without her.” Sissy spent 27 years working as a construction and traffic control laborer before “retiring” to run a restaurant, but her family’s history in serving the locals gave her the knowledge and experience she needed to make that retirement a success. “We just have good quality food, prepared by good cooks.”  That good quality food includes meals a hay crew would appreciate: hand-cut rib steaks; individually prepared half-pound hamburgers; homemade pies Sissy bakes late at night, with the eyes of the community gazing down from the walls in approval.

Occasionally, Sissy's sisters, Sharon Ray and Kathy Ponack, give a hand in the restaurant. They hold late night bake-offs in the kitchen, sharing laughter and memories. Brother Denny Craig is also a fixture at the restaurant. "Denny thinks he owns the pie counter," Sissy laughed. "And he loves to visit with everyone.

 “You have to make your locals happy,” she added. With the food, the family, and the stories she’ll sit and tell you, it’s a recipe she’s turned into a success, even if you have to fix your own drink.

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Landon Otis

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