Destination: Philipsburg, Montana
How one small Montana town found itself
BY DAVID REESE/Montana Living
It’s 9 o’clock on a Friday night in Philipsburg.
Two young boys on bicycles ride circles on the main street, and the town’s one traffic light blinks like a sentry over the empty downtown intersection. Music pours onto the street from the open doors of taverns, and on a stage at the White Front Bar, three men – ranch workers, perhaps – attempt a song on the karaoke machine while a disinterested audience sips their cocktails.
It’s just another Friday night in Philipsburg, an old turn of the century mining town coming into its second boom.
Here is one town that refused to die. Here is one town that held so strongly onto itself it could not conjure up the image of fading into oblivion like so many other boom and bust Montana towns that relied on mining or timber, here … then gone.
The newfound riches are not found in Motherlodes like the riches of the past; the new industry is people and tourism.
While the cowboys at the karaoke machine hang up their microphones and saunter back to the girls at their table, the men at our table talk about the future of Philipsburg and what potential it holds. They know that the survival of Philipsburg will hinge on tourists coming to town and pourng their cash into the tills. And that’s what they seem to be doing. The signs of life abound in this former mining town about 30 miles south of Drummond off of Montana Highway 1, in the heart of the Flint Creek Valley.
Philipsburg’s storefronts, which in a small Montana town like this are usually boarded up or covered with “For Sale” signs, are brightly painted and advertise a variety of wares, from fine gems at the Sapphire Gallery to candies at the Sweet Palace. Real estate isn’t cheap any more; like the miners who came to this town a century ago, Philipsburg has been discovered … or re-discovered.
Facing the main street of Broadway in downtown Philipsburg, the Sweet Palace is a century-old mercantile with creaky wooden floors. Long rows of bins filled with candies line the walls of the mercantile, and at the front of the store a machine twists and turns orange-colored taffy while children peek up over the glass counter to watch the candy stretch over itself again and again.
Sweet Palace co-owner Dale Siegford scrapes a 15-pound glob of the orange taffy onto a tray then hands it to a worker who will form the tasty sweet mound into small mouthfuls of taffy wrapped in wax paper. He ducks out a rear door, through a maze of boxes and re-enters two doors down at the Sapphire Gallery, another business he co-owns with Shirley Beck.
It’s people like this, and many others, who have poured their bank accounts and energy into keeping Philipsburg from becoming a ghost town. This town refused to give up.
But that’s part of the mystique and the attraction of the thousands of tourists who come through town each year. The town hangs on the edge to the past, a window into Montana history. People come here and wonder “How does a town like this make it?”
The answer to that question lies in a mining museum downtown.
Pulling taffy in downtown Philipsburg. David Reese photo
THE GRANITE COUNTY mining museum is a rich treasure of artifacts, antiques and photographs from Philipsburg’s and Granite County’s heydays of discovery, growth and mining. There is likely no other museum in Montana — small town or otherwise — that can provide the depth of knowledge gained from a simple tour of this museum. Upstairs at the museum, old photographs line the walls, shots of Chinese families who worked here and photos of the burly, dirt-faced miners who scratched a living in gold and silver from the deep mines in the surrounding hills. It was Granite’s Hope Mine that was the first silver mine built in Montana.
At one end of the museum, an 1890 Columbia Graphophone plays scratchy music from the small carbon cylinder on which the music was recorded. But downstairs is where your jaw will drop. A replica mine shaft has been built through one wall, a deep cavern where small-gauge tracks form a circle where a small railcar is loaded with ore. Nearby is an assay office loaded with chemicals and glass jars that chemists once used to determine gold or silver content of the ore. The ingenuity of the town’s founders and miners is shown in the huge machines that sit squarely on the cement floor, a contrast to the simple hand tools like picks and shovels that were used in getting the gold and silver out of the mountains.
The philosophy of hard work that created the original town of Philipsburg continues today. “We don’t have a lot of slackers here,” said Shirley Beck. “People need to have an intensity and a drive in order to make it.”
When silver and gold were discovered in the late 1800s up the steep draws above the Flint Creek Valley, hordes of miners followed. They dug and clawed at the mountains, hauling their treasure down the mountain to the newly formed town of Philipsburg. A main street sprang up to accommodate the new residents, who once numbered over 3,000.
These newcomers brought with them a lust for riches, and once roots began to grown in Philipsburg they began building the accommodations, fixtures and amenities that they once enjoyed “back East,” including the Montana Opera House Theatre, banks and restaurants. Many of the town’s original mining investors were from St. Louis, and the local storefronts mimicked shops in St. Louis, with fanciful scroll work, pillars and stone facades.
Around town you can get a good look at historical architecture. Many of the old homes remain and have been maintained in their early glory. The Granite County Jail, sitting high above the town, is an architectural masterpiece with intricate stone and brick work.
THE BROADWAY HOTEL is one of the town’s well-preserved buildings. The hotel, painted in bright colors with intricate trim and crown work, sits squarely on the downtown corner and is the town’s centerpiece. Jim and Sue Jenner bought the Broadway Hotel 16 years ago and are two of the town’s “new” founders.
The Jenners learned quickly that you don’t just show up in town, buy a business and become a civic leader. They’ve learned that cooperation and dedication to the town’s goal of survival are more important than personal gains. Sue Jenner sits on the Philipsburg city council, and Jim Jenner is a volunteer fireman. “It’s a wonderful little town,” says Sue.
There are other signs of growth around town. Just beyond Broadway, behind the downtown businesses, circular benches surround a large, round pit — these are seating areas for the town’s ice rink. The town folk wanted to make sure that the children have activities to keep them busy in winter, so the local 14-member Rotary club built the rink, which in the summer will double as an amphitheater. Masters-degree students from Montana Tech in Butte designed it.
Philipsburg already has a solid fixture for the performing arts: the Montana Opera House Theatre.
This historic theater is the oldest, continually operating theater in Montana. The rows of seats show signs of wear, but plopping down into one of them you can almost hear the miners’ laughter at the vaudeville shows or the lines from Shakespeare being shouted into the rafters, where an elegant balcony commands a higher view of the stage. The opera house will feature a full slate of original and classic plays this summer.
All around Philipsburg (P-Burg as it’s affectionately called) are glimpses into Montana’s past. One one hill overlooking town is the elementary school, the oldest working school in Montana. Above the town on the other side of the draw is the Granite County jail, a stone structure with a steeple top that frames a tall, narrow window. Look closely inside the steeple window and if the light is just right you can see the hangman’s noose. They don’t hang people in Granite County any more and perhaps they never did, but sheriff Steve Immenschuh√keeps the noose there as a humorous reminder of the presence of law enforcement in this Montana frontier town.
Philipsburg was built with a frontier mindset and that free-thinking attitude seems to remain. There is no leash law in town, and you’re likely to see a few local dogs wandering through the downtown. People like it that way. It represents the freedom on which Montana was built.
Philipsburg has regained a status on the state’s tourism map entirely on its own and without government assistance. “The government would do well to just bottle up what we’ve done here and sprinkle it around the state,” Jim Jenner says, referring to the art of marketing Montana’s rich historic heritage.
Just out the back door of the Broadway Hotel and up the steep hillside, you’ll find several churches, some used, some not. One is for sale. But on Mother’s Day this year, a large congregation gathered at St. Philip Catholic church for the first communion of several town children.
The priest shares the duties at St. Philip, then commutes to Drummond and the state hospital in Warm Springs. Among the congregation is Brian Bolstad, a fresh-faced 14-year old who is the town’s accordion player. His mother works at the Sweet Palace. After spending a weekend here, you learn the threads that bind this town together.
Philipsburg is proud of its mining past, and takes this heritage seriously — well, almost. At most bars you can still get a “shifter,” a free drink that was always offered to the miners when they got off work at the nearby mines. While locals are selling history instead of gold, there’s still that sense that Philipsburg is a working-man’s town.
“This town represents some of the essence of old Montana,” says Jim Jenner in between bites of a big steak dinner at the Silver Mill restaurant in downtown P-Burg. “It’s all locals doing this. There’s no giant corporation trying to make P-burg the next big thing. It’s all neighbors saying ‘Let’s do this.’”
As we eat this huge steak dinner at the Silver Mill, a small elderly woman shuffles through the front door into the hubbub of a Friday evening. This woman is Shirley Finn, 88, one of the oldest residents in Philipsburg and the town’s matriarch. The locals are quick with a “Hi Shirley!” as she walks slowly through the restaurant, looking for a bar stool or chair.
Finn is from the old-school Philipsburg but she’s an example of the older town residents blending with the new. The town’s rock and roll musicians, representing a rancher, a hotelier and a surveyor, teamed up to form a band. They called it “Mustang Shirley” and the name accurately conveys the personality of this fiery woman.
“I’m so proud we have a band all our own,” Finn says in her soft, feeble voice. “I tell you what, this is my town.” Finn tells the story of when five members of her family died one day, several decades ago.
One of the town’s most admirable assets is its friendly people. Enter Philipsburg and prepare to be embraced as one of its own — and quickly. Just a couple of hours into our trip, hugs were plentiful, and Happy Hour wasn’t even over yet.
TECHNOLOGY has allowed for significant growth in the Flint Creek Valley. About 25 miles outside of Philipsburg is Project Vote Smart, a national research organization that studies nearly every political race in the country and provides this information free to the public.
Project Vote Smart attracts young people and retirees to do the research and data entry for 13,000 political candidates every year. Most of the work is volunteer, a sort of Peace Corps for people looking to do work with a social meaning. They also get to experience a great part of the state. “We attract people who want to see Montana, who want to ride horses or learn to fly fish,” founder Adelaide Elm says.
At the headwaters of Rock Creek and near the Pintler mountains, the ranch offers diverse recreation for people from as far away as South Africa, Bulgaria, Ireland, Atlanta or California.
“It creates an experience for them they’ll never forget, and it’s working,” Elm said. Volunteers work 40 hours a week, then get to enjoy the recreational aspects of the 150-acre Great Divide Ranch, which Project Vote Smart purchased in 1999.
It’s an unlikely setting for top-notch national research organization, but with the help of the local phone company, the Blackfoot Telephone Cooperative, a high-speed T-1 Internet line connects Project Vote Smart to the world. “We have all the technology we need,” Elm said.
When trying to etablish their permanent national office in Corvallis, Ore., Project Vote Smart leaders figured it was cheaper to run a grass roots organization from a rural area. They needed a large place where they could house, feed and employ up to 80 people. In 1999, they found the Great Divide Ranch, an existing guest ranch that fit their needs.
Most of Project Vote Smart’s paid staff live in Philipsburg, while the interns and volunteers live up at the ranch. As for the people from around the world who descend on this tiny Montana town, “They love it,” said Elm, chair of the Project Vote Smart board who helped start the organization in Tucson in 1990. “Philipsburg is one of the things that they love about being here. The people are nice, the town’s interesting, and it’s got four bars.”
The Project Vote Smart web site is so popular, it gets 16 million hits a day during a national election year and is a highly respected research organization.
Project Vote Smart is one example of how Philipsburg stands on the door to the past, but is also a threshold to the present. Being only a one-hour drive from Missoula or Butte, Philipsburg has become a bit of a bedroom community to the larger communities of Anaconda, Buttte and Missoula. Discovery Basin ski area has added chairlifts to more challenging terrain, and for fishermen, Georgetown Lake beckons with good fishing for trout. It’s not quite a year-round destination area yet, but it has all the makings.
At a barbecue competition this spring, University of Montana football coach Bobby Hauck showed up to help judge the contest. Hauck’s great grandfather, Lawrence Hauck, immigrated to Philipsburg, and his grandfather was born and raised there. Hauck, a popular coach of the Montana Grizzlies and a fourth-generation Montanan from Big Timber, is proud of his Montana heritage.
These small towns are chance for Hauck to get away from the “big” cities like Bozeman or Missoula and back to his roots.
“These towns are all a lot alike,” he said, sitting on the bleachers at the Granite County High School football field in Philipsburg. “They’re full of history.”
SHIRLEY BECK is one of the town leaders who helped spearhead Philipsburg’s revival is, co-owner of the Sweet Palace and Sapphire Gallery.
The Sapphire Gallery is a store in Philipsburg that sells fine jewelry, including sapphires dug from the nearby Sapphire Mountains. Like those unearthed gems, Philipsburg, Beck discovered, was a diamond in the rough. In the 1980s, Philipsburg was in a death spiral, reeling from economic setbacks in mining, ranching and timber.
An irony to how the town was founded on industrial innovation, Philipsburg’s population began to dwindle because of increased mechanization in logging and agriculture.
A woman of conviction and resolve, the redhaired Beck helped get the town behind the movement to painting the town (literally) in the bright hues. “People with money aren’t going to leave you money unless you look like you deserve it,” says Beck, who closes her shops on Saturdays because of religious beliefs.
A new post office was built in 1998. The government had sought to put the post office on the outskirts of town, near the highway, but the townspeople rallied and got the building put downtown and had it built in a manner that would reflect the town’s charm.
Beck knew that building the post office outside of downtown would be a death knell for the town — economically and socially. Just like in any small Montana town, the post office is the gathering place for neighbors and friends. “If you don’t see people at the post office for two days in a row, you know you’d better go check on them,” Beck said.
Shirley Finn is one of those people that townfolk are always sure to check on. Her immaculate, white frame house sits just above town, the lawn impeccably mowed. At 88, Finn remembers the old days in Philipsburg, when the Greyhound bus actually made a stop here.
“We used to be on the way to somewhere,” she says, and her eyes trail away.
IF YOU GO
Annual Miner's Day Picnic in Philipsburg, June 26
Contact: Steven Immenschuh, 859-3803 or e-mail email@example.com
Rocky Mountain Accordion Festival, Aug. 5-7 features Memphis soul and Zydeco music
Little known fact: the Sweet Palace in Philipsburg sold five tons of taffy last year, five tons of fudge and 3 1/2 tons of caramels, all of which was made onsite.
You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss you had was years ago. You walk these streets laid out by the insane, past hotels that didn't last, bars that did, the tortured try of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail turned 70 this year.
The only prisoner is always in, not knowing what he's done.
— Richard Hugo, excerpted from “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.”
On the Net: www.broadwayhotel.com. Phone: 859-8000.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE:
Best steak in town: Silver Mill Restaurant, downtown Philipsburg. Best shopping: Sapphire Gallery, for fine local sapphires, and the Sweet Palace for homemade taffy, caramel and candy.
GEM MOUNTAIN TREASURES
There is treasure in the hills around Philipsburg.
Sapphire gem stones can be found in loose gravel in the Sapphire Mountains near Philipsburg, and using your hands you can find a gem or two for yourself. At Gem Mountain, 22 miles west of Philipsburg on the Skalkaho Highway, the public can purchase 20-pound bags of raw gravel and hope to find their own sapphires. The sapphires are small and a bucket, which costs $10, averages about 12 karats of gems, says Chris Cooney, Gem Mountain owner.
In downtown Philipsburg, the Sapphire Gallery also offers customers a chance to find their own sapphires. These are the only two retail businesses in North America that offer heat treating of sapphire gem stones, according to Cooney.
About 12,000 people each year come through the Gem Mountain operation to have a chance at finding their own sapphire or purchase gems that have already been treated, faceted or mounted. At the south end of the Sapphire Mountains, Gem Mountain has been in operation about 40 years, and was once a commercial sapphire mine.
The stones are often pale grey, pink or purple when they are found, but when treated in temperatures up to 1700 degrees, various colors come out in brilliant hues. Once you find a raw sapphire, knowledgeable staff at the Sapphire Gallery or Gem Mountain will let you know if it's of gem quality and worthy of being treated and faceted.
At Gem Mountain, Cooney tells his customers they are not guaranteed they'll find a sapphire in their bucket of gravel - but that's part of the "treasure-hunt" thrill. "The thrill of the find, the gamble, that gets people hooked," he said.
Both the Sapphire Gallery and Gem Mountain perform heat treating of gems on-site. Each business uses its own proprietary method of heat treating to bring out the most vivid hues in the sapphires.
"Like a chef, you can vary the taste and the color of the stones based on the techniques," Cooney says.
What Sapphire Gallery and Gem Mountain try to do is re-create what nature has done to the stones: expose them to high heat and other elements, such as oxygen. The high heat disperses naturally occurring elements in the stones, and the amount to which these elements are dispersed defines the colors, Sapphire Gallery owner Dale Siegford says.