By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BOZEMAN – When Bob Simkins returned to Bozeman from World War II in 1945, he scooped up his new bride Jean and, with only $5,000 in his pocket, they moved to West Yellowstone to open a lumberyard with Bob’s parents, Glen and Theresa.
But after the war lumber was scarce, so in the early days their shop had to diversify.
“At first we had to sell anything we could get our hands on,” Jean said during a 2017 interview at her assisted living apartment in Bozeman. “We sold furniture, paint—anything we could find to buy, really, because there wasn’t a lot for sale then.”
In 1946, the Simkins partnered with their friend Pete Hallin, a construction foreman in Yellowstone National Park, to form the lumber company Simkins-Hallin.
Jean, who turns 95 on Feb. 25, remembers the West Yellowstone years with fondness and a frequent chuckle.
“There weren’t that many people there, but the ones that were there were very close,” Jean said, naming many couples that became lifelong friends like Wally and Frankie Eagle. The Eagles were among the first residents of West and owned Eagle’s Store, which still stands on the corner of Yellowstone Avenue and North Canyon Street.
When asked about the long, cold, isolated winters, Jean shrugged and said she was too busy working in the store to focus on that, keeping the books, stocking the shelves and doing whatever else needed to be done.
“There is a lot to do when you start from scratch and have very little money,” she said.
Jean may have kept busy, but many of the other 100 or less year-round residents at the time spent the winters drinking and gambling.
Jean remembers having to carry special drills in their hardware store so gamblers could load their dice. She also shared an anecdote from those “wild and woolly” times when a local man shot a moose on main street in plain view of tourists—and the game warden.
“There weren’t too many rules in West Yellowstone back then and the game warden didn’t enforce [them],” she said. “They had all been there for so long, doing what they wanted, and didn’t want anyone to tell them otherwise.”
In 1950, Bob and Jean moved back to Bozeman with their growing family to operate a lumberyard on Wallace Street, which would relocate to Broadway Avenue in 1992.
Sometime in the 1950s, the Simkins bought Hallin out, but nearly 75 years later the company remains Simkins-Hallin, in tribute to their dear family friend.
Jean’s reminiscences of the past invariably return to her husband Bob.
“He just loved land,” she said more than once. “Any time he had a dime he bought land.”He also had an instinct for buying land in the vicinity of outdoor recreational areas, as he had around Bridger Bowl Ski Area, outside of Bozeman.
In 1970, when he heard about Chet Huntley’s dream of building Big Sky Resort, he made a deal with the owners of Sappington Ranch, who ran cattle in the Big Sky area. Bob offered to trade the land he had bought near their Three Forks-area ranch for the 3,680 acres in Big Sky.
The acreage was split into six different sections that included land behind Buck’s T-4 Lodge, where the Simkins kept their horses and went on frequent rides with friends up Michener Creek; the “sagebrush flats” or current location of Town Center; and property near Ousel Falls.
Today, the Town Center parcel and the “Upland” parcel across the South Fork down Aspen Leaf Drive are the only ones still owned by the Simkins family, having sold, donated or traded away the rest of the original ranch property.
Bob’s son, Bill Simkins, shared a story about how Huntley approached his father in the early ‘70s and asked him to trade the land where the sewer ponds currently sit. In their plans for the resort, Huntley and his team of engineers had been remiss in securing an adequate site for the infrastructure.
Simkins agreed to donate the land with the contingency that he would retain water and sewer rights.
Although they had settled in Bozeman, Jean and Bob Simkins skied Big Sky Resort just about every weekend, hosting family and friends at their Glacier condominium and house on Curley Bear Road, until Bob’s death in 1993.
Jean is very proud of her family’s role in the development of Town Center. Although development may be perceived as happening quickly, planning actually dates back to the early 1980s, with the first residential project completed in 2003, and the first commercial project completed in 2005.
Today, Simkins-Hallin remains a family business. Jean’s sons Bill and Tom, and grandsons Rick and Brodey, divide their efforts between the real estate companies for which Town Center is currently the main project, and the lumber company in Bozeman.
“Thank goodness all my kids grew up in it, and liked it, and are still doing it,” Jean said. “And doing a good job.”