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How to Throw an Unforgettable Bonfire Party

  • Photos by Erin Kunkel
  • Text by Sarah Collins

Gathering with old friends around a fire and a cozy meal is the main event at a Montana family's get-together.

The Menu

Every December, in their cold corner of Montana, the Iwersen family raises warm mugs to friends on their small ranch just south of the Canadian border. And as sure as the air is crisp, guests can count on jaw-dropping scenery, a toasty meal around a bold blaze, and a singing cowboy. Here, the menu served alongside the Iwersens' vintage tin plates and cups and antique antler cutlery.

 

To drink:

Hot Apple Cider with Ginger

 

To eat:

Fireside Beef Stew

Pull-Apart Garlic Bread

Cowboy Cookie S'mores

Cast-Iron Huckleberry Cobbler

To Spike or Not to Spike

Warm apple cider with ginger and lemon is on offer. Bourbon is optional. Speaking of bourbon, inexpensive flasks filled with the whiskey make handy winter souvenirs.

Bowls of Comfort

Everything the Iwersens serve can be eaten standing around the bonfire or sitting with a camp tray on your lap. Inside the barn, there’s a piping-hot pot of rich beef stew and warm, stick-to-your-ribs pull-apart garlic bread. The beef stew gets better over time, so make it two to three days ahead to let the flavors meld.

Garlicky Goodness

This fluffy loaf is what you’d get if Parker House rolls and garlic bread had a baby -- it’s soft, studded with garlic butter, and utterly irresistible.

Local Specialties

As the stars shine brighter, desserts come out: Charred marshmallows are sandwiched (s’mores-style) between cowboy cookies -- a dough filled with coconut, pecans, chocolate chips, cinnamon, and oats. 

A neighbor up the street brings his famous huckleberry cobbler, made with wild berries and baked in a cast-iron skillet; huckleberries are big in Montana (everyone freezes them), but if you can’t find them in your local grocer’s freezer section, frozen wild blueberries are fine substitutes.

Winter Wonderland

With a fresh dusting of snow on the ground, and more flakes in the forecast, the Iwersens’ famous (in these parts, anyway) bonfire party is shaping up to be another feel-good holiday reunion. “Montana winter nights are long and cold and very starry, and sometimes it’s too beautiful to stay inside,” says host Teri Iwersen. “The bonfire exudes warmth and togetherness and gives off light.”

Teri and her husband, Larry, an orthopedic surgeon, moved to Kalispell, Montana, back in 1988, when there was a job opening for a doctor. “My mom and dad liked the idea of raising a large family in a small town,” says eldest daughter Cassidy, a stylist in New York City and frequent contributor to Martha Stewart Weddings. And that’s just what they did: In addition to bringing up their own four kids (Cassidy, Beau, Anna, and Lizzie), the Iwersens were foster parents to dozens of babies over the years through a program called Cradle Care.

A Galloping Good Time

  • horse running winter

    All four Iwersen kids grew up riding horses for sport. Youngest sibling Lizzie lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and still competes in team roping and barrel racing.

  • woman carrying blankets in snow

    Anna brings out wool blankets to fend off the flurries.

  • women wreath dog snow

    Lizzie and Teri with Miss Kitty and Husker, the family dog.

  • walking horses in snow

    Sisters Lizzie and Anna Iwersen take a walk with quarter horses Miss Kitty and Skeeter.

  • tack room saddles barn

    The tack room is home to saddles for Skeeter and Miss Kitty, and photos of the kids “horsing around.”

  • horses with garlands

    Skeeter and Miss Kitty show off wreaths and a garland made by Mum’s Flowers, a local florist.

     
  • horse running winter

    All four Iwersen kids grew up riding horses for sport. Youngest sibling Lizzie lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and still competes in team roping and barrel racing.

  • walking horses in snow

    Sisters Lizzie and Anna Iwersen take a walk with quarter horses Miss Kitty and Skeeter.

  • woman carrying blankets in snow

    Anna brings out wool blankets to fend off the flurries.

  • tack room saddles barn

    The tack room is home to saddles for Skeeter and Miss Kitty, and photos of the kids “horsing around.”

  • women wreath dog snow

    Lizzie and Teri with Miss Kitty and Husker, the family dog.

  • horses with garlands

    Skeeter and Miss Kitty show off wreaths and a garland made by Mum’s Flowers, a local florist.

     

A Bonfire Is Born

Ten years ago, Teri and Larry moved onto a “ranch-ette” farther out in the country. “I always wanted to be able to feed my horses in my pajamas, and now I can,” Teri says. “And Glacier National Park is right in our backyard -- it’s such a treasure.” That’s when the bonfire tradition started. Its origins were more personal: Teri started building an end-of-year fire to cleanse her mind for the coming year. “Originally, a bonfire was called a ‘bone-fire.’ It’s believed that people would burn animal bones to ward off evil spirits,” says Teri, referring to a Celtic ritual dating back to the 15th century.

Now it’s the centerpiece of a Christmastime gathering of 60 or so family members, friends, and neighbors from all over the Flathead Valley. Teri and Larry, with their now-grown kids and a few former foster children, set out a spread of warm stew and pull-apart bread, hearty drinks, and tree-stump seating. Then the guests arrive. “We have ranchers and farmers, horseshoers and teachers, and part-time residents who come for the summer and holidays,” says Teri. “But it’s a small town, and people know one another from the different things they do. It’s everyone, together, huddled around the fire.”

Fresh-Air Fun

  • woman carrying wreath

    Cassidy, a stylist in New York City, comes home for the party. Here, she carries a key decoration.

  • family bonfire

    Teri and a few friends at the start of the blaze. Family friend Gene Gordner (aka the Last of the Singing Cowboys) walks around the bonfire playing old Western songs. “He does leatherwork and gun-smithing and rides mules -- he’s a true cowboy,” Teri says.

  • family talking drinking outdoors

    Outside the barn, Lizzie, Cassidy, Beau, and Anna get the party started. A John Deere Gator doubles as the bar. Along with a tub of beer, it’s stocked with mulled cider, hot cocoa, coffee, and adult add-ins (whiskey, bourbon, Kahlua).

  • guests eating

    A guest stays warm while fresh snow falls.

  • woman carrying wreath

    Cassidy, a stylist in New York City, comes home for the party. Here, she carries a key decoration.

  • family talking drinking outdoors

    Outside the barn, Lizzie, Cassidy, Beau, and Anna get the party started. A John Deere Gator doubles as the bar. Along with a tub of beer, it’s stocked with mulled cider, hot cocoa, coffee, and adult add-ins (whiskey, bourbon, Kahlua).

  • family bonfire

    Teri and a few friends at the start of the blaze. Family friend Gene Gordner (aka the Last of the Singing Cowboys) walks around the bonfire playing old Western songs. “He does leatherwork and gun-smithing and rides mules -- he’s a true cowboy,” Teri says.

  • guests eating

    A guest stays warm while fresh snow falls.