A place that should top every Montanan’s bucket list is the Virgelle Mercantile, a remote and exceptional antique store and bed & breakfast near Coal Banks Landing on the Missouri river. You can get there by floating 42 river miles downstream from Fort Benton or by driving 19 miles down a gravel road from Loma and crossing the river on the Virgelle Ferry—one of only three Missouri River ferries left in Montana. My favorite route is an eight-mile drive down a gravel road hemmed by wheat fields and blue sky that shoots off of Highway 87 North between Loma and Big Sandy. One thing’s for sure: No matter how you arrive, it’s going to be wild & scenic.
“You’ve got Coal Banks Landing at one end of the valley and the ferry on the other,” says Don Sorensen, who grew up six miles down the road on his family’s farm and bought the Mercantile—which will be 100 years old in 2012—in 1978. He began selling antiques immediately, and within a year he was also orchestrating river trips and renting out homestead-era cabins that were hauled in from within a 40-mile radius. He now rents out six cabins and a sheep wagon; each features period furnishings and has its history displayed inside—as well as a copy of the deed showing when the family “proved up “ on the homestead.
“We sell ice cream bars, water, soda, sunscreen, mosquito repellant, ice,…” explains, Jimmy Griffin, who became a partner in the Mercantile in 1993 and has operated the Virgelle Ferry for nearly twenty years. “Pretty much anything you’d need on the river, but it’s not a real, actual mercantile.”
Antiques are for sale throughout the building—even the second floor b&b, and down the block in the bank (also owned by Sorensen and Griffin), as well as in the dining room that adjoins the Mercantile’s kitchen. “I promise not to sell the chair you’re sitting on, though” quips Sorensen, who serves b&b guests a locavore feast of waffles made from locally-grown KAMUT wheat topped with chokecherry syrup from the kitchen of Sorensen’s mother and sister in nearby Big Sandy (Don picks the berries on the banks of the Missouri!) and a platter-full of sausage from a locally raised hog…ground and spiced just the way Don likes it. “And in the fall I like to serve cantaloupe from Pearson’s Big Sandy Missouri River Melons.”
Cabin guests receive a Continental breakfast, but a variety of packages—from canoe and kayak rentals to a one-day White Cliffs cruise all the way up to a to a full-on 7-day guided package…are available. http://www.canoemontana.com/ . Some packages even include hors d’oeuvres and dinner on one of the Mercantile’s porches.
“I just love what we do,” says Sorensen. “The whole world comes to my backyard, and I get to show them where I grew up.”
He got the ultimate complement a few years ago. “A group left, saying, ‘We don’t feel like we’re leaving a place of business. We feel like we’re leaving the home of a relative.” That’s certainly how I feel every time I pull away, belly full of chokecherry syrup, brewed under the eye of a Big Sandy farmwife.