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Ida and Sam Eagle: Founders of West Yellowstone’s Eagle Store

Painting of the Eagle Store in West Yellowstone, founded by Ida and Sam Eagle

By SUZANNE WARING

When Sam and Ida Eagle married in 1907, they had a dream to build a business in an isolated part of Montana. Successful in leasing an acre from the US Forest Service next to Yellowstone National Park’s west entrance, they built a mercantile store that would accommodate park visitors who arrived on the newly built Oregon Short Line of the Union Pacific Railroad. The couple partnered with Laura and Alex Stuart, former working colleagues at the Fountain Hotel in the park, to build a 14’ x 20’ building, which they opened for business in 1908.

Always an entrepreneur, Sam, in 1910, won the mail contract for what had been first called Boundary, then Riverside, next Yellowstone, and, under Sam’s guidance, finally, West Yellowstone. The train brought in the mail until the tracks became impassable in the winter. 

Several men then took turns bringing in the mail, first via horse and bobsled, next by horse and toboggan, then with a dog team, and finally as an individual skier through the deepening snow. 

Skiing to Henry’s Lake to pick up the mail was a dangerous trip for a lone person. When it was Sam’s turn, he would be gone at least two days, leaving Ida, who was steady, organized, and a hard worker. She would care for the children and manage the store. While many businesses closed during the winter, the Eagles, holding the mail contract until 1935, kept their store open. 

A land survey completed in 1910 indicated the mercantile store was in the middle of the street and had to be moved. About the same time, the Stuarts decided to buy another business, so the Eagles became the sole owners of the store that underwent structural changes for the next 17 years as the family and business grew. 

In 1927 the renown Bozeman architect, Fred F. Willson, drew up plans for a new building that was patterned after the Yellowstone National Park rustic style and included living quarters on the upper floors. Sam and his cousin, Raymond Mauger, oversaw the construction over the next three years.

The Eagles had 10 children, born between 1908 and 1928. One day when the family was enjoying an outing, a stranger, seeing the children at play, asked Ida if this was a community picnic or did the children belong to her. Ida responded, “They’re mine, and believe me, it’s no picnic!”

With no conveniences in this out-of-the-way place, the family cut wood for the stoves, hunted and fished for their own meat, and cut ice on Hebgen Lake, so it would be in supply for the soda fountain.

Sam had an outgoing personality. Guiding customers on fishing and hunting trips, he was also a real outdoorsman. One time he bought himself a new rifle only to discover Ida had gone to the woodpile to cry because she so desperately needed a sewing machine. Sam found a way to buy her one.

The children learned responsibility. One of their duties for working in the store was to make ice cream. A younger one started turning the ice cream maker’s handle until it became too difficult, and then an older brother would take over. Ida made a chocolate sauce to go on the ice cream. Customers returned to the beautifully tiled soda fountain year after year, to enjoy an ice cream treat featuring Ida’s famous chocolate sauce.

As the years passed, West Yellowstone business owners became concerned about losing the lease on the land where their stores were located. In 1915 they decided to take steps to own the land by sending Sam, the town leader, to Washington, D. C., to lobby Senator Walsh. They were able to attain 340 acres for private ownership, but setbacks continued to delay finalization. 

In 1924—after nine long years—some 50 lots were sold to those who had preemptive rights before a general auction was held. Besides leading the land ownership project, Sam was also instrumental in building the first church, the first school, and the airport.

Ida was not only mom to her children, who all went to college, but also Mom Eagle to everyone else. New park rangers would come into the store, not knowing what they needed for their sparsely equipped cabins. She would take them under her wing and help them so much, they came to depend on her.

The Eagles survived challenging times. During World War I and II, the great depression, and the recession of 2008, people quit traveling. The frightening 1959 earthquake, which occurred on their doorstep, caused a downturn of business the following year. Another frightening event was the 1988 Yellowstone Park fires that blazed within a mile of the town. 

Sam died in 1950, leaving Ida desolate. Desiring to grieve alone, Ida went into her room and shut the door for days. She had done this when, William, the fifth child and a senior in college, died suddenly of an infection. When she felt that she was ready, she picked up her responsibilities and went on with her work until her death in 1962. Running the store became a team effort. Joe, who was the second-to-youngest child, took over as manager, coordinating three teams of family couples who took on other responsibilities. 

Joe’s daughter, Karen, took on the managerial responsibility next and was the last family member to manage the store. Family members, plus loyal employees, would always arrive to work during the busy tourist season. The store, after being in business for 113 years, was sold in 2021

Today, the Eagle Store sits on the major corner of West Yellowstone. Though it’s a place to fill the gas tank, enjoy a treat at the antique fountain, or pick up a souvenir, the store is also a monument to a family who built a business from nothing while also contributing significantly to the development of a long-standing Montana community. MSN

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