For more than 120 years, Bonner quietly fulfilled the only role it ever had: company town. When the mill was established in 1886, Bonner was so isolated that the company built residences for the workers and their families. Until their homes could be completed, families sometimes lived in tents or stayed with others already occupying homes.
Families were part of the fabric of Bonner from the earliest days. The Weekly Missoulian, April 8, 1887, records the birth of a daughter to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Rouleau of Bonner, Montana Territory.
By 1888 the first post office was established, followed in 1889 by the completion of Bonner Hall, which housed the Masonic Lodge. The Bonner School first held classes there in August and continued until a new building was built closer to Piltzville and Milltown in 1907. After the school moved, Bonner Hall continued as the social center and later served as office for the Blackfoot Forest Protective Association until torn down in the early 1940s.
In 1892 the grand Margaret Hotel was constructed to house dignitaries making the long trip from Missoula and farther destinations. It featured beautifully appointed rooms and fine dining. Over the years it at times housed the post office and library and was home to single mill workers as well as families. Its demolition in 1957 is lamented to this day.
The arrival of Kenneth Ross as mill manager in 1899 perhaps played a pivotal role in the shaping of Bonner’s society. An experienced mill manager, Ross was also skilled at human relations and under his 26 year administration, Bonner flourished. He made sure his workers were well treated: the company made no profit on house rentals or at the company store, established in the late 1880s. He provided a public library at the urging of County Librarian, Mrs. Ruth Worden, and agreed to let Charles Hart establish the community or “Victory Gardens” in 1918 that were worked and appreciated by gardeners until the late 1940s when the mill expanded.
Land for the Bonner School as well as two community churches, St. Ann Catholic Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church were provided by the mill in the early 1900s. Though the structures have changed, those three community pillars still stand side by side today.
Kenneth Ross’ successors continued his style through the years and Bonner suffered less from labor unrest than did other ACM properties.
In 1972 Champion International Corporation acquired most of the assets of Anaconda Forest Products and on October 2 of that year U.S. Plywood started sawmill operations. Mill properties, including the Bonner houses, changed hands through the years until Stimson Lumber Company sold the houses to Scott Cooney's Montana Improvement Company in fall of 2007. Stimson subsequently ceased mill operations and put the property up for sale in 2009.
By the time the houses were sold in 2007, modern life long ago erased the isolation that had fostered creation of the society of Bonner. The sale created another irrevocable change: company houses were exactly that. Only active mill managers lived there; there were no widows or retirees. From now on renters and eventual owners of the restored houses will live there through choice, not employment.
Lengthy legal procedures resulted in the Montana Improvement Company declaring bankruptcy in 2011. Some of the Bonner houses were restored by then, but the fate of others was in doubt.
Having survived and flourished much longer than most company towns, Bonner begins a new chapter. Local history advocates are working to see that its heritage will forever be noted on the National Register of Historic Places as the Bonner Company Town Historic District.