Updated Depot: Historic Billings Depot thriving as events center
By Allyn Hulteng
Jennifer Mercer’s eyes light up as she guides a newly-engaged couple around the historic Billings Depot. As executive director of one of the city’s most iconic buildings, Mercer delights in showing off the beautifully restored edifice, weaving bits of local lore into her tour.
“It’s encapsulated history,” Mercer said. “There’s no other place like this.”
Elegant, with ornamental columns, articulated beams and plaster relief, the interior bespeaks of another era, evoking a sense of timeless grandeur.
The authentic vintage appeal is perhaps one reason the Depot has become a popular venue for weddings and other community events. Yet the fate of this legacy landmark could have been far different had a handful of visionaries not intervened.
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Red Ants Pants Music Festival quickly becoming a Montana summertime favorite
By Kelsey Dayton
Photos by Erik Petersen
The stars radiated in the sky as they do only in Montana, flaming, shooting and omnipresent, far from any competition from man-made light as singer Brandi Carlile came back to the stage.
The indie folk rocker had started her set under a true Montana sunset that faded into a night of stars as she sang.
It was the type of moment that makes Montana’s vast sky so famous.
Rising from the prairie near the base of the Castle Mountains, just past the small town of White Sulphur Springs, stacked bales of hay and livestock equipment fill much of the space along one of Montana’s trademark stretches of highway – until a miniature tent city appears each July.
“It’s the middle of nowhere, and as I kind of like to think of it, the middle of everywhere,” said Sarah Calhoun, the founding owner of Red Ants Pants and producer of the same named music festival she decided to host in a local rancher’s field outside White Sulphur Springs, a town of about 900.
For three days each July, well-known musicians like Carlile – and this year, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Lee Ann Womack – play the main stage at the Red Ants Pants Music Festival.
Music from up-and-comers fills the air from a second stage nearby on festival grounds.
Calhoun started the festival in 2011 as an interesting offshoot of her manufacturing company that makes work pants for women.
She grew up on a farm in Connecticut and moved to Bozeman in 2004, following a dream to live in the West. When she couldn’t find a pair of durable work pants designed specifically for a woman’s body, she designed her own and started Red Ants Pants in 2006 without any business experience.
Wanting a more authentic Montana experience and inspired by Ivan Doig’s famous novel “This House of Sky,” she settled in White Sulphur Springs.
The problem was Calhoun never wanted to simply run a business.
Instead, her passion lies with supporting women in leadership and helping ensure the future of the agricultural industry and family ranches, the mission of her Red Ants Pants Foundation, which since its inception has given away around $45,000 in grant money raised through the music festival.
Along with drawing artists like Josh Ritter and James McMurtry, the festival features demonstrations of traditional agricultural skills like roping, sheering, grain milling and meat processing. It’s a family affair with young kids exploring on bikes and lined up for hay rides.
The same things that drew Calhoun to the area – the vast sky, the mountains and the strong agricultural community – is what makes it so incredible to hear artists like Carlile playing in a field under a Montana sky.
Even with about 11,000 people at the festival in 2014, it’s incredibly intimate and the artists respond to the atmosphere.
“You can see them come alive on stage,” Calhoun said.
All told, Red Ants Pants is a celebration of Montana, its agricultural traditions and values, and great music.
Scott Benson, of Pocatello, Idaho, returned to the festival for his third year last summer, bringing his visiting daughter, Chloe Benson, of Dallas, Texas.
There’s something about hearing an artist like Carlile play an acoustic, stripped down set in a dusty field, he said.
“It was brave and special,” he said.
He comes for the headliners, but also to discover new bands and music.
Donna and Steve Tobin, of Billings, came to the festival for the third time in 2014. The first year they came to see Lyle Lovett and since have discovered other musicians they like, such as Martha Scanlan and Matt Andersen.
The Last Revel, a band from Minneapolis, Minnesota, played in the emerging artist contest last summer.
“It was by far the coolest music festival I’ve been to,” said Ryan Acker with the band. “That one just has a really special vibe to it and it’s the most amazing setting I’ve ever seen.”
After listening to music all day, Acker and other musicians jammed in the nearby campground that is set up for festival goers each year.
“It was this really euphoric feeling the whole time,” he said.
The Last Revel’s performance on the smaller side stage netted them enough votes from festival attendees to play the main stage this summer. They’ll perform the Friday of the festival and Acker said they can’t wait to return.
It’s an eclectic mix of people, he said. There are college kids and old cowboys, rural ranchers and people from cities.
Calhoun’s aim has always been to bring people together, and music is a powerful tool for that, she said.
“(The festival is) one heck of a party that brings folks together,” she said.
Calhoun loves seeing people from obviously different places connect through music.
“You see them being the best versions of themselves,” she said.
Rikki and Alan Serfoss, of Vaughn, have been to a lot of festivals and gatherings. They came to Red Ants Pants for the first time in 2014, after hearing about it via word of mouth. They loved the location, music and atmosphere.
They planned to return this summer with a caravan of friends.
“This is much more low key (than other festivals),” Rikki said.
As the festival grows in popularity, Calhoun hopes to maintain the important homegrown vibe, which she knows draws people just as much as the music.
It’s become a community event, Calhoun said. Local cowboys on horseback park cars. Horse teams provide rides in wagons and the Meagher County Cattlewomen serve breakfast as a fundraiser.
All in all, the festival is a reflection of the small town life Calhoun loves.
It’s friendly and tight-knit, while never feeling crowded – something special that brings people together.
Shooting stars crossed the sky as Carlile returned for her third encore at the 2014 festival.
“It was so powerful,” Calhoun said. “Everyone was dead silent. She just had us all in a trance.”
Carlile played into the night, mixing original songs with covers of songs like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Each time she finished and left the stage, she returned.
“Some nights,” she said, “are just too hard to leave.”
Kelsey Dayton is a frequent Montana Magazine contributor. She writes from Missoula.
If you go: Red Ants Pants Music Festival
The Red Ants Pants Music Festival is July 23-26 in White Sulphur Springs, featuring the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Keb’ Mo’, Lee Ann Womack and Ryan Bingham.
A weekend pass costs $125 in advance; single day passes cost $50. Camping near festival grounds costs $20.
For more, click here.
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Berry lovers find paradise in ‘Huckleberry Capitol of the Montana’
Story and photos by Aaron Theisen
In western Montana, where a relatively short history of permanent human settlement combined with long distances between settlers has somewhat slowed the development of cultural institutions, one tiny fruit has served as a common currency: the huckleberry. Native American tribes that inhabited the region prized the huckleberry harvest as an opportunity to visit relatives and interact with members of other tribes.
European settlers quickly realized the social as well as nutritional benefits of the berries, too, and picking picnics often turned into courting grounds.
- Scroll down to find a set of huckleberry recipes
Often, huckleberry camps high in the mountains represented the bulk of the interaction between the Native Americans and white settlers. Come mid-summer in western Montana, much as it’s done for thousands of years, the huckleberry – which itself has resisted domestication – continues to cultivate a sense of community.
Friends and strangers can discuss the huckleberry forecast or their latest haul – if not their favored picking spot.
Communities throughout the region celebrate the strong pull of the purple berry with festivals.
But it’s in western Montana’s Cabinet Mountains, a lightly inhabited region of rugged ridgelines, expansive wildflower meadows and steep, glacier-gouged basins of beargrass and bighorn sheep, that the huckleberry has attained mystical status.
Here, tucked between the slow-moving waters of the Clark Fork River and the Cabinet Mountains, tiny Trout Creek bills itself as the “Huckleberry Capitol of Montana.”
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Savoring Summer: Our pick-your-own picks
Story and photos by Jessica Lowry
It is a luminous, neon-blue June morning as sunlight spills across the low rows of strawberries at Red Hen Farm. Marked by a large red barn, these 10 lush acres at the edge of Missoula in Western Montana has become a produce-picking destination for families, cooks and fruit-lovers alike.
Visitors to the farm won’t find anything particularly fancy.
On one side of the two-lane road leading to the farm is an open field for public picking. On the other side sits the family residence and a table with a small, metal scale where you can pay for your handpicked treasure by the pound.
What sends droves of locals and tourists to visit each summer?
That first, exquisite bite of freshly picked fruit.
At Red Hen Farm there are 18 different kinds of strawberries to keep you hunting for just the right one.
Greg Peters, 42, and his wife Julie Engh Peters, 37, have run the pick-your-own portion of their farm for the past four years.
“Our typical year produces 8,000 pounds of strawberries,” Greg said.
With Lolo Peak as a backdrop, it doesn’t get much more picturesque.
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Glacier’s longest-running hiking crew forms close bond with park
Story and photos by Becky Lomax
On a gray drippy day, a group of 16 Flathead Valley hikers, ages 60 to mid-80, eyeball the pouring rain.
Inside their restaurant meeting place on the west side of Glacier National Park, no one looks at a menu to order breakfast.
The waitress, greeting the regulars by name, asks, “You want the usual?”
One member quips, “With the rain, maybe we should stick around for lunch.”
But weather does not deter these weekly hikers. Not rain, snow or single-digit temperatures.
Every Thursday, nearly year round, the Over the Hill Gang meets at the Glacier Grill in Coram.
After breakfast, they depart to multiple trailheads – some to lung-busting, seldom-visited peaks, and others to worn paths where every red mudstone and gnarled sub-alpine fir is a familiar friend.
It was 1976 when five men in their 60s launched the Over the Hill Gang.
Since then, the gang has grown, evolved with new faces, and garnered the reputation as the longest running hiking group in Glacier. The big adventurers have climbed to hidden lakes, bushwhacked cross-country routes, and summited crags, often returning after dark.
For hikers that could have bragging rights as giant as the roster of peaks they’ve climbed, they ditched egos years ago behind some clump of beargrass in favor of camaraderie.
Glacier’s Over the Hill Gang
Year Established: 1976
Headquarters: Glacier Grill, Coram
Membership dues: $0
Hiking day: every Thursday, year-round
Attendance: approximately 30, for peak summer hikes
They have forged an emotional bond with the park, their decades lending an intimate perspective of the changes Glacier is undergoing.
As some of the original Over the Hill Gang members faced the challenges of aging, the club began splitting into two or more hiking groups each week: one still tackles 20-mile hikes that include off-trail adventures and summits, while the other group walks fewer miles on trails.
Many of the gang’s early members, now in their 80s, hike in the latter. They joke about which group is the “A” team and which is the “B” team. But despite miles versus summits on the day’s docket, clear deference to the older hiking group leaves little question of who’s on the “A” team.
“Our trips have gotten shorter, and I’m through with counting peaks,” said 86-year-old Ivan O’Neil, the only one of the original five still hiking with the gang.
He’s summited about 120 peaks, many with the gang, and credits the group for bringing balance to his life at a time when he worked six days a week.
Despite his age, O’Neil has several more years to catch up with two early members who hiked into their 90s.
The gang rose to local legends when journalist George Ostrom joined the weekly treks. He hyped their escapades on the radio and in two books.
As the gang gained distinction, it grew in numbers.
But there’s no president of this club. No bylaws. No membership dues. In fact, if you ask what’s on the agenda for hiking that day, you’ll most likely get a vague, “Well, I don’t know,” or a joke. If strangers show up, they’ll invite them to hike, too.
While longevity on the trail is a hallmark of the gang, younger seniors now fill the ranks, and newcomers join annually. Numbers of participants shrink in winter for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, but swell during summer to around 30.
Roger Wolfshorndel linked up with the gang four summers ago. He credits the camaraderie with helping him change his lifestyle back into healthier patterns, like when he used to hike frequently during his five summers at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
Women have joined the hiking club, too.
Greta Kiremidjian hikes weekly with the older group.
“They’re the best group to hike with. They are so intelligent,” she said, referring to members who are retirees from law, business and medicine, plus one nuclear physicist.
On Thursday mornings by the time breakfast is finished, usually two or more destination are on the agenda.
No one consults a guidebook or map. Trail stats are in the octogenarian heads, and they can describe remote nooks of the park.
With the drizzle, the older group opts for Rockwell Falls in Two Medicine, acting on old park lore that less rain might be falling on the east side.
At the trailhead in Two Medicine, O’Neil, Wolfshorndel, Kiremidjian and three others bundle in rain gear.
O’Neil, who is legally blind from macular degeneration, uses poles for balance, but plods up the trail at a steady gait that would outpace many younger hikers. The Paradise Creek swinging bridge that would stop some 80-year-olds poses minimal challenge for the three hikers familiar with how to balance while stepping across the jiggling span.
At Rockwell Falls, O’Neil pulls out an iPad to snap a photo of the tumbling water, the large screen aiding his eyesight. Its use contrasts with the film cameras that used to document Over the Hill Gang trips.
Even professional photographer Robert Zavadil, who climbs higher up the falls to capture a better angle, has traded in his big, heavy camera and lenses for a small digital model.
Yearly, the oldsters still tackle their favorite trails: Iceberg Lake, Ptarmigan Tunnel and the Highline. For 20 summers, the gang aided the park service in opening the Highline Trail.
They shoveled tread paths across the steep snowfields from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet. They also cleared winter debris and fallen trees from other trails.
But after 2011, the park service nixed the volunteer efforts.
“The park got worried about these old guys with chain saws clearing out windfall,” cracks Zavadil.
The years of tromping Glacier’s backcountry gives the older gang members an intimate historical perspective.
Over the decades, they’ve seen substantial changes in the park.
“We used to have the park to ourselves,” O’Neil said.
But last summer, he recalls passing 250 people on the way out from Avalanche Lake. He also notes several off-trail traverses that show human impacts.
In Swiftcurrent, so many hikers have explored Shangri-La and the Snow Moon and Falling Leaf Lakes that now eroded paths mark the routes.
“For so long, I never realized how many tourists were in the park because we’d often get off the trail after dark,” Zavadil adds.
These aren’t simply old codgers whining about the good old days.
The National Park Service recorded 2.3 million Glacier visitors in 2014, a record-breaking year, and is examining management strategies for crammed parking lots and crowded trails on the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor.
In addition to melting glaciers, the gang has noticed more subtle alterations in the landscape.
“There used to be fewer trees. More areas now are covered by forest,” Zavadil said. Wolfshorndel adds, “From the Iceberg Lake Trail, you used to see Red Rock Lake. Now you can’t.”
Science corroborates their gut impressions with climate models and repeat photography from the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center showing forests encroaching on alpine meadows.
As the gang hikes back from Rockwell Falls, Zavadil dives off the trail into the forest to photograph a wood nymph flower.
“I’ve been looking for it for 23 years,” he beams.
That sense of discovery, even after decades of hiking the same trails, epitomizes what the gang is all about.
The oldsters, rather than lament their inability to do the grueling climbs of earlier decades, they still revel in their love of Glacier.
No matter how the landscape itself or the faces of the Over the Hill Gang change, the core hiking crew keeps plodding on with a perennial sense of exploration.
No egos. Just camaraderie.
Becky Lomax is a longtime Montana Magazine contributor. She writes from Whitefish.
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Treasure State Hidden Gem: Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum
By Vince Devlin
Photos by Tom Bauer
It would take more than a day to hit all the museums in Great Falls, but it would be time well spent.
No visit to the Electric City, of course, is complete without taking in the C.M. Russell Museum, where you can explore the paintings, sketches and sculptures by one of Montana’s favorite sons and one of America’s greatest Western artists, and visit Charlie Russell’s home and log-cabin studio as well.
There is also the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, considered one of the finest of its kind in the nation by many Lewis and Clark buffs. The Great Falls Museums Consortium can also direct you to the Montana Museum of Railroad History, the Children’s Museum of Montana or the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, to name just half of the consortium members.
- Read more about the Electric City here
In all the varied choices, don’t let this one escape your attention: It’s the Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum and Air Park.
It’s really quite fascinating, especially if you let a museum staff member show you around.
Malmstrom is a U.S. Air Force base without an airplane, control tower or flying mission. There are, however, helicopters at the base that patrol almost 14,000 square miles of the central Montana prairie.
That’s where 150 Minuteman III missiles and their nuclear warheads, capable of traveling 15,000 mph, are buried. Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing of the Air Force Global Strike Command.
At the museum you’ll learn all about the missiles and the Cold War that brought them to Montana. The original concept, interestingly, was to place the missiles on train cars, not underground, and have them constantly on the move. The idea was that a moving target would be a more difficult target for America’s enemies.
Malmstrom may lack airplanes today, but that wasn’t always the case.
Established during World War II, the base helped shuttle almost 8,000 aircraft to Fairbanks, Alaska, from 1942-45. Sometimes they carried supplies, and other times it was the planes themselves that were bound for our WWII ally, the Soviet Union.
- See more photos from across Great Falls here
At the air park outside the museum you can see several of the planes that did call Malmstrom home when the base had flying missions during its first half-century, including a KC-97 stratotanker, an F-84F Thunderstreak fighter bomber, an EB-47B Canberra tactical bomber used for electronic reconnaissance and radar-jamming, not to mention an LGM-30G Minuteman Missile that gives the base its purpose today.
Malmstrom Museum Tip Sheet
Anyone with an interest in military history in general, and the U.S. Air Force in particular, will enjoy the Malmstrom Museum. But an interest in history or technology, period, will make it a worthwhile stop, and kids will like both the roomful of shelves filled with models of aircraft the U.S. military has used – from WWI biplanes to the stealth bomber and Air Force One – to the real things outside the museum in the air park.
How to see it
You’re free to wander the museum on your own and read about the exhibits. But we highly recommend asking if a museum staffer is available to give you a tour. You’ll learn lots more than is printed on the displays, and find your visit is far more informative and interesting.
Seeing the museum won’t cost you any money, just a little time – there’ll be some paperwork involved, seeing as you’re being admitted onto an active military base. They’ll help you at the Malmstrom Visitor Center at the 2nd Avenue North gate.
The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you have questions, call 731-2705.
Vince Devlin is a frequent Montana Magazine contributor. He writes from Polson.
It’s movie star season in Montana
Missoulians – especially those at the MADE Fair in downtown Caras Park – were excited by a couple of mega movie star sightings last weekend when Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire were spotted shopping at the craft fair and buying coffee at a local shop.
The Missoulian’s David Erickson has the story:
Chase Taylor might be one of the only people in the world who has talked with Leonardo DiCaprio – arguably one of the most famous celebrities on the planet – without having any idea who he was.
Taylor spent Sunday at Caras Park helping his wife Paisley with her baby clothing business, Paisley Designs, at the Missoula MADE Fair, an alternative arts and crafts market featuring local artists.
A bearded man walked by, and Taylor did what any good salesman would do. He called him over to check out the baby clothes.
“My wife was out of the booth breast-feeding our son,” Taylor recalled. “Leo wasn’t interested in buying my wife’s clothes, but I pulled him in and talked to him. I was one of the very few people that got him to go into a booth. He was a very nice guy. It was a very brief conversation, and I gave him my business card and then he left. And then the lady next to me told me who he was. I had no idea.”
The man was DiCaprio, a five-time Academy Award nominee who probably doesn’t enter into many conversations with people who don’t recognize him.
“He looked like a normal Missoulian,” Taylor said. “He fit in very well. It was kind of cool to see someone that famous here on a very hot day.”
Read the rest of the story here.
Hit the road for this beautiful celebration
We’re quickly approaching a summer holiday weekend, and this year the Fourth of July falls on Saturday. Do you have plans?
Care if we make a suggestion?
How about the Arlee Celebration. Take a look:
Wherever you are along the Western Montana corridor this summer, you don’t have to go far to find our one-of-a-kind Road Trip for June.
That’s a good thing, because the Arlee Celebration is something everyone should experience.
The Celebration powwow, including several days of traditional dancing and a host of other events, celebrates its 117th anniversary this year.
- For the full Arlee Celebration schedule, click here.
The Arlee Celebration runs July 1-5 in Arlee. The powwow grounds are located just east of Arlee, roughly 20 miles north of Missoula on Highway 93. Signs from the road will help guide you in.
Last summer, up to 400 dancers participated in the West’s oldest continuous powwow.
It’s a powwow rooted in deep tradition and founded when Indian dances were illegal under Bureau of Indian Affairs rules.
However, according to the Arlee Celebration website, the BIA and Indian police didn’t find it illegal to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Read more here.
We’ve got a ton more summertime stories in our upcoming July/August issue. Want to take a look? Subscribe today!