By Stacy Bronec
Located eight miles off the highway between Havre and Great Falls is the Virgelle Mercantile, owned by Don Sorensen. In 1982 Sorensen started an antique sale called “A Real Country Christmas at a Real Country Store.” Over the following years he noticed other communities in Chouteau County having events leading up to Christmas, some on the same weekend as his antique sale. He thought it made sense to band together to promote a county-wide Christmas event, in hopes of drawing in more visitors from outside the county. He invited a group of community members out for dinner to discuss his idea, and the rest is history. Sorensen matter-of-factly says, “Christmas is in the country and not in the mall.”
Chouteau County Country Christmas officially started in 1999.
Chouteau County covers nearly 4,000 square miles and with six communities participating, there are a lot of highways and gravel roads to cover. Sorensen chuckles as he refers to it as a “progressive dinner”–you drive and shop, drive and shop. He considers the event to be different from other holiday strolls because you can’t do it all in one day. Many people plan the weekend away to enjoy the dance in Loma on Friday night, then stay through Sunday to visit Shonkin for a wagon ride with draft horses, then onto the lighting of the Christmas tree in Fort Benton and out to Virgelle, being sure to hit Geraldine and Big Sandy in between.
Sorensen estimates he sees as many as 2,000 people in two days in Virgelle. He says people are always amazed at what they find; “There’s a ferry out here?” Although it is closed this time of year, many people make the trip back during the summer to take a ride on the ferry and stay at one of his cabins.
The weekend gets people into the holiday spirit, inspiring them to go home and decorate. And before you think you don’t have room to add a piece of antique furniture, Sorensen laughs and says, “Tell your husband to add onto the house.”