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In Kalispell, Montana, there is a historic home that belonged to the Conrads, a founding family of this town. Charles Conrad helped found the city of Kalispell in 1891, and he and his wife Alicia (Lettie) had their dream home designed by Kirtland Cutter. The Kalispell home was completed in 1895, and Charles, Lettie, and their three children, Charley, Kate, and Alicia moved into their home around Thanksgiving of that year.

The Conrads were the only family to ever live in that home. Alicia, the youngest daughter of Charles and Lettie, donated it and all of its contents to the city of Kalispell in 1974 to be preserved as a museum for all of us to enjoy.

The Conrads also began the Conrad Cemetery where there is a mausoleum for members of their family. Behind the mausoleum there is a set of stone steps built into the steep hillside leading up to the mausoleum. Charles Conrad was the first person to be put to rest at the Conrad Cemetery in 1902 in the location that he had chosen for the mausoleum. Lettie Conrad had the steps (known locally as the fairy steps) built so that she could ride her horse or take a carriage to the bottom of the hill and walk up those steps to have a private entrance to the cemetery to visit her husband.

The first time I visited the Conrad Mansion was on a field trip when I was in elementary school. I was born in 1975 and was probably nine years old when I visited the Mansion, and it hadn’t been a museum for all that long at that time. I never would forget that first visit. Something about that place fascinated me, and in my life so far, I’ve returned to it over and over again.

When I was in high school, it was a popular thing for teenagers to sneak into the Conrad Cemetery at night to try to walk the fairy steps. Now that I’m an adult with a fully developed frontal lobe, I realize the stupidity of that tradition. First, it was illegal to trespass into the cemetery after it was closed. Second, the fairy steps are built up the side of a pretty steep drop-off. I would even call it a cliff. Back then we didn’t have cellphones, so no built-in flashlights, and I don’t think we brought other flashlights. So, there we were, stumbling around in a dark cemetery at night near cliffs, scaring ourselves to death, and trying to find the fairy steps that are made of stone and go down the side of a cliff. Geniuses we were not. But we lived to tell about it, thankfully. When I went to the fairy steps at night as a teenager, I didn’t even know the history of where those steps came from and why they were there.

Now I am a 6th grade teacher in Kalispell, and I am also a docent at the Conrad Mansion during summer breaks, and this summer will be my third summer there. Last summer, I recruited my husband to be a tour guide at the Mansion too. We both love it. My fascination with the mansion started as a child, and for some reason, I am repeatedly drawn back to it. My husband and I also live in a historic home near the Mansion. I love old houses and all the history that comes with them.

Last week I took my four English Language Arts classes on four separate field trips to the Conrad Mansion and the fairy steps. We are kicking off a unit on informational writing, and historic houses and cemeteries are perfect examples of primary source material for research. So, on those field trip days, I was doing double duty, teacher and tour guide.

Two thirds of my students had never been to the Mansion and most knew nothing at all about the Conrad Cemetery and the fairy steps. Due to Covid, many field trips were not taken when my students were in younger grades, so they had missed out. Sixth grade is actually a good time to take students to the Mansion, though. They’re old enough to appreciate and understand the significance of these places better than they would have been in the early grades. I was honored to get to show them this part of their town’s history.

While we were at the Mansion, Drac, the mansion cat, made an appearance near the sunny back porch when it was time for us to leave. My students gathered around because I had told them about Drac, and they all wanted to pet him. Drac is a sweetheart, so he loved the attention and even crawled up in the lap of one of my tougher students and cuddled right up. The smile on that student’s face was priceless.

After the Mansion, we boarded the bus and headed up to the cemetery. This year, most of the snow has already melted, so my students got to walk the fairy steps. Last year’s groups couldn’t because the steps were buried under the snow and too slippery. Legend has it that if you try to count the fairy steps going down, you will get a different number when you come back up. So, my students could be heard counting out those steps in both directions, and they, of course, did not have matching numbers going back up.

As a child on a field trip back in the mid-eighties, I’m sure I didn’t have any ideas about one day becoming a docent at the Mansion, and that one day I would be taking my own classes on field trips there where I would be their tour guide. But somehow, that is how it has all worked out.

I love teaching, and I love the Mansion, and those two loves go well together. But please don’t tell my students about my high school secret outings to the fairy steps. I purposely did not tell them that story because it’s a terrible idea, and I didn’t want to give them any ideas about that, but I think they probably wouldn’t do that anyway, especially now that they know the sacred and special reason that those steps are there. I also think kids are a little more cautious than teenagers in the 90s. At least we can all hope.