[2:40]: Sarah’s origins in New Brunswick and Connecticut
[4:50]: Raised by llama farmers and small business owners
[7:20]: Finding where to set down roots
[9:00]: Scottish heritage
[9:40]: Moving from rural New England to rural Montana
[12:45]: Funny anecdote about bachelors
[14:15]: Where do you think of when you think of home
[15:45]: Neighbor as verb
[16:50]: Bringing people together through music
[18:25]: Loving a democrat, loving a republican
[20:30]: What Sarah learned from her grandparents
[22:35]: Political diversity in small town America
[23:45]: Bridge building and finding common ground
[25:30]: A badass rodeo of women
[27:10]: Red Ants Pants' Girls Leadership Program
[30:50]: Girls Leadership community service projects
[31:50]: 6 key takeaways from rural revitalization efforts
[36:40]: From a one-horse town to small town pride
[38:15]: Everyone is famous in a small town
[39:35]: Coming full circle with This House of Sky
[43:20]: Rural America, it’s the wave of the future
[46:10]: The future Sarah wants to see for rural Montana
Megan Torgerson (narrating): There is a home in the heart of rural Montana where authors and entrepreneurs have dreamt, toiled and coined great works that shape the cultural landscape of the American West. A stone’s throw from the North Fork of the Smith River, the 134 year old Victorian rests on the edge of town, on the home of the Blackfeet, below a cagey sky and the sudden spires of the Castle Mountains, and the sage brush slopes of the Big Belts and their Northern cousin, the Little Belt Mountain Range. A great constant in this historic home, this small town of White Sulphur Springs and the surrounding pine forests, working lands and meandering rivers are people “who live with calamity” (Ivan Doig, This House of Sky). People like Sarah Calhoun who are committed to a valley that throughout the centuries has known peace, deception, discovery, and hope in hard times and in times of prosperity.
Sarah Calhoun is a voice I respect on the power of building bridges, of the importance of passing down traditional work skills and cultural pastimes, and leading with kindness and authenticity.
Sarah Calhoun: There's a lot we can collectively learn from the culture of small town America. Of things that might be applicable to our broader world and how to treat each other a little better, and, you know, have Republicans and Democrats break bread together. That's an important thing, and I think that's exactly what we need more of these days.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural.
Today, a conversation with Sarah Calhoun. Best known for her celebrated achievements as the entrepreneur and founder behind women’s workwear brand, Red Ants Pants, Calhoun is also a dreamer, a doer and a convener. As the Executive Director of the Red Ants Pants Foundation, she organizes a homegrown music festival that brings thousands of people together each year to swing dance in a cow pasture, raise their koozies toward the Big Sky and celebrate rural Montana. The festival also helps fund a Girls Leadership Program, timber skills workshops and community grants that support among other things, family farms and ranches. I spoke to Sarah a month before Red Ants Pants Music Festival’s 10th anniversary this July.
Torgerson: So the conversations I'm having for Reframing Rural’s second season all begin with the geographic background of guests’ childhood and considering all the layers of geology, economy, family and culture that are wrapped up in place, I wonder if you could speak to the geographic background and rural New England setting of your childhood?
Calhoun: Yes, absolutely and I love that you're framing it this way because that it’s so significant to who we are and how we are and what we become. I was I was born in eastern Canada actually up in New Brunswick the first four years on a farm up there and then we moved back down to family land in rural Connecticut a little town called Cornwall in the Northwest corner. We were very fortunate that my dad's family had been in ag for a lot of generations on a dairy operation. And we built our farm right next door to grandparents, so had family around and also a lot of acreage of a beautiful forest. It's called Cathedral Pines Farm and the oldest stand of white pine East of the Mississippi I believe still stands there and our neighboring property is Nature Conservancy so there's some pretty incredible pines there. So growing up in that forest and all the farmland with the stone walls that you know the farmers from over the centuries had been pulling rocks out of the fields that when they when they were farming and plowing and make these beautiful stone walls framing all the fields out there. It's pretty lovely.
Torgerson: Oh, that's beautiful. And I imagine like in New England and on the East Coast, everything feels so much closer together like compared to Montana where the spread is so far apart. Did you have friends and neighbors nearby that you can play with and cousins and extended family to or?
Calhoun: Yep, absolutely. We had family on both sides. Our farm is right up on the hill above the Cornwall village, so we could just bike down and see folks and of course our grandparents were right next door and that was that was a lovely thing. But you're right about the closeness of the hills and it's kind of the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. The Appalachian Trail goes right through our farm, and the Housatonic River right through the other side of town. And the hills are so close and protected and safe compared to out here. That's been an interesting reflection of the wide open gorgeous, stunning Montana landscape compared to the protected trees back home.
Torgerson: So I enjoyed a connection that you made in a blog article between work ethics and morals and I wonder if there are any standout memories from your childhood where a strong worth work ethic and morals were modeled for you?
Calhoun: Well, you know farmers are small business owners right and they have to wear all the hats and not only do the animal husbandry but the marketing and the sales. And the education in the llama industry at that time was my folks got in in the mid ‘70s, and they were some of the oldest breeders in New England so they did a lot on the educational front of teaching folks basically how to raise llamas. But just watching my parents work really hard to get the business off the ground and to raise kids. And then in ‘89 there was a pretty substantial tornado that came through and the whole community pitched in endlessly and I think that was a fundamental lesson, and I was 10 years old at the time. But the whole summer like dad went through three chainsaws that summer just clearing up all the debris and all the trees that came down and it was relentless. So yeah, seeing my folks and neighbors and really all the extended family set that set that tone of you just get the job done. And dad always said, and this sticks with me with every job I'm doing, “if you're going to do it, do your job well,” and that's a good life lesson right there.
Torgerson: Yeah. I really resonate with that as the daughter of a farmer. And my parents just worked so hard to keep the farm going and the family going and there was always running back and forth between one field or one task and the other. And yeah, how did your parents divvy up that task? Were they collaborative in the farming and the child rearing efforts?
Calhoun: Yeah certainly Dad did more of the outside stuff and just maintaining properties with with land and bush hogging and all the trees out there. There's a lot of work and we had a wood burning furnace so doing a lot of firewood always and putting up the hay and whatnot. And then mom she's a marketing whiz and handled a lot of the customer service and sales, and planned a lot of llama conferences and you know, the educational piece. And they were both very hands on with with raising my sister and I.
Torgerson: Wow, you really took the best of, of your parents. I bet your parents are really proud of what you've built.
Calhoun: Yes, absolutely.
Torgerson: So yeah, you the tornado story is just so telling. And I bet that was just a huge experience to you growing up and it sounds like the community was really tight knit. And yeah, I wonder if you ever found yourself missing home after you left or later if you were kind of looking for a similar place to set down roots.
Calhoun: There's elements about that community – and I think that's why I'm always drawn to small towns and rural places is because the values that I think are woven across these communities. I think they're transferable across the country and probably other continents as well. But I think in another way, I wanted to kind of test my own skills and ideas and do that in a place where – because the Calhoun family had been in Cornwall for you know, since the early 1700s, and one of one of the kind of founding farming families there. Which is which is wonderful, and I'm trying to spend as much time as I can seasonally back there and you know, try to figure out what we're doing with the farm and whatnot. But it is nice to also try things independently and figure out what you can do on your own two feet.
Torgerson: Yeah, where did your family come from before they came to the US too?
Calhoun: A lot of Scotland. Mom has done a lot of genealogy back to oddly the Mayflower on both sides of the family so there was a lot of Scotland some England and French in the bloodlines, but that's dad's side of the family was the Calhouns were pretty, pretty solid Scots. And I was able to get over there 2019 back in the fall to go to the old Calhoun clan in Lus on Loch Lomond which was pretty fun.
Torgerson: Wow, that’s so cool. I love genealogy and drawing those connections and finding where home was for your ancestors and what that place means to you too. I'm sure you kind of felt something when you were there, you know?
Calhoun: Mm hmm yeah. And it's funny, now in my current world with music, it's interesting to trace it back to like the different music routes from you know, different fiddle tunes now and then, and we've booked bands from Eastern Canada where you know, we're around where we used to live and then but then in a lot of that came from Scotland and Ireland. And just the roots and the ties of music through place and movement across the world too is pretty awesome. How you're just like “oh this is my music,” even if you don't know why it's in you or how it's in you. It's pretty cool.
Torgerson: Oh I love that yeah. When you moved to white Sulphur Springs How did you respectfully embed yourself into that new community?
Calhoun: I think there's a lot of grace and patience and listening and learning that has to take place when you're moving into a new community. I mean White Sulphur is this wonderful ag town that's you know been kind of a classic boom and bust natural resource town over the years with mining and logging. And it's the county seat so it's its own structure and entity it's not kind of a bedroom community by any means. We're about 100 miles from any other place of substantial size. And you know, it's a pretty conventional conservative cowboy culture which I was fascinated by and I, and I was really looking for good hard working people is what I was looking for. And that's certainly the case here. But someone coming from not only out of county but out of state and on the other side of the country, even though I see a lot of parallels between back east and where I grew up and a little farming town like White Sulphur. You know I was still from back east and so I was probably over worried about being accepted and belonging more than I should have but you know. I was 25/ 26, moved here single bought an old saddle shop on Main Street. So it was pretty obvious that I was the new one in town and “what's this Red Ants Pants business she's starting, and who is this lady and why isn't she married and oh, she's single and…” you know, the things, the things. Everyone thought, well other people always asked like, “oh, did you move here for a man” and it's like, “no, I moved here because I wanted to start my business here and I like this community.”
I didn't know a soul in the whole county, and I had always gotten involved with community efforts so I just started pitching in and getting to know people that way. And like I went to the post office to mail packages and Judy Berg the post that postmistress lady was like, “oh, welcome to town, do you want to join the Arts Council?” And I said, “Well sure. Tell me about that.” And then I had an EMT sticker on my car at the time because I have been an EMT for years and I literally got chased down like the first week I was in town and Connie a lady on the ambulance was like, “Oh, you're an EMT. Welcome to town Do you want to join the ambulance?” And I said “absolutely, sign me up,” so things like that. And I love that about small towns it's your skill set you know. I coached volleyball in junior high for a couple of years and there's things that like if I were in a bigger town there's no way I would be good enough to coach their volleyball team but here your skills just become really useful and helpful and beneficial. So I just I just pitched him and got involved that way and really started getting to know people and different ranchers who would let me go out and ride and work at brandings and shippings, and just got to know the place. And I certainly didn't come in with an idea of trying to change it to anything I knew previously or whatnot. I wanted to learn how this place worked and how it ticked and you know, what drove the culture and the community. And socially I don't mind belling up to the bar and that's where you meet people in a small town. Like dive bars are where it's at and I learned to play poker and you know went to the basketball games in the winter. And that's what you do. So certainly got to know the community pretty well through all of those engagements.
Torgerson: Yeah. Did anyone ever tried to hook you up with any old bachelors, or not old bachelors but any available bachelors? I've heard those stories from back home.
Calhoun: Oh yeah. I remember when this was actually pretty hilarious. There was the guy I forget his name. He was a custom cutter out of Havre. So you know, they start in Texas and he and his son, they would work all the way up through the through the harvest. And they get to White Sulphur, and he had come by once before and just popped in. I didn't even have the shop open. I was renovating at the time. And he came by and he was like, “will you be here tomorrow, I'm gonna bring my son over.” And I was like, “okay,” and it was the most awkward. He came in and brought this son who was probably around my age, but was so unbelievably shy and literally, the dad was like, “well, I'll just leave you here and let you to visit” and I'm like, you know, working on my ceiling trying to get stuff done. And, and this nice young man would just he just literally would look at his boots and kind of kick the floor and didn't have anything to say then the dad left us there. And he's like, “I'll be back.” And I was like “Oh, dear goodness.” So there were those moments that certainly happened, but you just carry on.
Torgerson: Yeah, that's a really funny story. That’s great. So it sounds like White Sulphur Springs is really home to you. And I mean, you've been there for over 15 years now. Where do you think of when you think of the word home like is it both Conneticut and White Sulphur?
Calhoun: Yeah it’s certainly both and that’s a that's a tricky one. Someone was talking to me about – where were you going to get buried? And whoa, this is a good one to think about, you know, and I'm like, “Oh, of course in the Calhoun Cemetery in Connecticut.” And I think, you know, homes can be multiple places and parts of us certainly. Like Cornwall and my family is always home home, but I have built a pretty incredible home and community of my family out here as well.
You know, and then you think of buildings, and this, this old saddle shop that I lived in for 15 years is always to kind of a home base because I did live right behind the store for so many years. And now it's my office and it's what I know in and out here. But this new home with the Ringling mansion that I'm living in is quickly becoming the next home. So it's fun to see and feel how the transition happens. And I think even just in town, having multiple places that do feel like home is it's a beautiful thing. The more homes we got the better.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. So there was something I was struck by in a talk that you gave for Montana State University Extensions’ Reimagining Rural program, and that was neighboring, like neighbor as a verb. And I wonder if your decision to start Red Ants Pants the company festival and foundation was intended to be a gift of good neighboring from you to White Sulphur Springs?
Calhoun: That's a great question. So yeah, neighboring is such a beautiful idea. And that concept or that word, first came from one of our grantees out in the town of Jordan, out in your country. We gave the, some money to help support some trainings for fire prevention after that awful fire had come through a couple years ago. And they were talking about how you know, this is the kind of place where neighbor is a verb and that just struck so true. And I think that resonates with so many of us in rural areas. Because we need each other and we can't make it without each other. Even if we disagree with our neighbors, we depend on them and they depend on us and that's a really important thing I think.
But you know when I was starting the pants company, I don't honestly know that I was thinking and visioning on any broad terms other than initially I needed pants that fit and I wanted to do it, you know, certainly with a strong value base and made in America and, you know, using integrity and treating our people well and making it personal and really connecting with not only our sewers, but our customers and our staff and our community. I think that's really essential. And then with the festival, I guess there's a lot of neighboring involved just fundamentally with the festival and being able to pull off an event like that in such a remote place. And we certainly do have a lot of kind of underground intention of how mission is incorporated into the experience and setting the tone of you know, we are trying to be really inclusive of everyone and really encouraged different types of people to come and connect and discover common ground. But to do that in a way that's not any forthcoming forced intention, it's kind of setting it up so that people can come and just have their experience. We give them the music, the beer, the landscape, and then it happens kind of organically and authentically on its own, which I think is how real change does happen. And that's exciting to see it.
We’re using music as a tool to bring the people together, and I may have I may have told you that one of my favorite pictures from our first festival, there were two guys standing with their backs to the camera, and it didn't look like they really knew each other. They were just having a beer and enjoying the show. And one guy’s shirt said “save the planet” on the back and the other guy who presumably worked for an asphalt company, his shirt said “pave the planet.” And stuff like that is exactly what we're going for. You know. That's a win in my book. And that's what it's all about. So really trying to create that common ground for folks. Everyone has this shared experience of an amazing show and then we can carry that forth back into our worlds.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. Really in connection with that, I was really moved by a passage from a blog post that you wrote on ancestors in the future and your grandparents, Polly and Frank. And you wrote, “I've been thinking a lot about whose shoulders we have stood upon to get where we are today. I so wish I could sit down at their old farm table by the wood stove and get some advice and perspective about how we move forward in this world. I imagine Polly and Frank would say keep working hard. Keep taking care of the land. Keep an open place at the table for everyone who needs it. Keep loving a Republican. Keep loving Democrat.” And yeah, looking back I wonder if you could tell me more about your grandparents’ influence and how you carry their wisdom through the Red Ants Pants Foundation, and the core values that you have through the foundation.
Calhoun: Yeah, I forgot I wrote that. That was a good one. I don't know if you can see that picture. That’s them right there. This was there 50th wedding anniversary. And that's me. I was three. And that's their, their kitchen. That's fun.
Torgerson: Is your grandma making baking bread?
Calhoun: Yes. She sure is.
Torgerson: Oh I love that photo.
Calhoun: Yeah, she’s awesome, yeah. So my grandparents were a unique couple in that he was a he was a Republican and actually the state legislator, back in Connecticut and did a lot for tax credits for ag producers and whatnot back in the day. But my grandmother was a very vocal, staunch Democrat. And I loved seeing how that worked in a marriage and a partnership, and obviously, they cancel each other's votes, but they made it work. And they were both very involved with the community and their church, and my grandmother was way ahead of the time. Like she started the girls basketball team at my grade school like back in the ‘50s, I think, like way before title nine, and all that kind of stuff. So they were they were go-getters for sure. And they were the dairy farmers back in Cornwall. And I think, again, the value base of being good neighbors and working hard and working together and supporting your community. Those are things that have been role modeled in my life for years. And those really, I think we're pretty fundamental with developing our mission and our statement of values for the Red Ants Pants Foundation, with women's leadership being a big one. Certainly, I think everything and anything we can possibly do to support girls and women to reach their potential is, is really important. And we need to focus on that as much as we can, because there's so much strength in what women can accomplish that's for that's for darn sure. And then, you know the other part of our mission with supporting family farms and ranches and agriculture, I just think that's obviously a fundamental thing we all need. And it's a very difficult occupation and lifestyle, and I mean financially and physically and with the environment and everything you're working with, on a day to day pace. I think farmers and ranchers are not respected or paid well enough across the board, and that's something we need to work on, and whatever we can do to support that. And then additionally, rural communities and again coming back to these small town values and the good things that just happen, because we need each other and we need to keep things going in these small towns. I think there's a lot we can collectively learn from the culture of small town America. Of things that might be applicable to our broader world and how to treat each other a little better. And, you know, have Republicans and Democrats break bread together. That's an important thing. And I think that's exactly what we need more of these days.
Torgerson: Yeah. Oh, I absolutely agree. In our first conversation, you talked about living in Bozeman and how you were looking for a place that was more diverse. And on the outset, maybe people would think that Bozeman with a larger population would be more diverse. But you were also talking about the political diversity and the diversity of thought that exists in small town America.
Calhoun: Yeah, it was it was interesting being I mean, and Bozeman is a great town. But I think because there were so many like-minded people, it was, you know. Everyone had the same politics and the same music and the same vehicles and the same outdoor gear and you know. It was wonderful, but it didn't challenge me personally. And you know, I wanted a high school aged friend and I wanted an older man friend. When you go to a place like White Sulphur, there's honestly not a lot of younger people or potentially like-minded folks, and so you're really forced to find connection with people. Like you have to find that the lowest common denominator of like, okay, we might not agree on this politically, but what we can discover is the we both love horses or smoking a pipe, or, you know, going hiking or whatever it is this kind of community-centric thing that we can connect on. And then it forces you to yeah, to find that common ground. Which is just to just to find your place here and have a community you know, but I think there's a lot of value in that. It’s harder for sure socially and personally on some levels, but I think it really makes our character a lot richer.
Torgerson: So I think you're really a bridge person and I wonder if you were talking to someone who placed more of an emphasis on what divides us than brings us together, or someone who believed people aren't able to change? I wonder how would you argue that bridge building and finding common ground is so important today and always and that diverse perspectives are really a strength.
Calhoun: Good one. At Gettysburg College I worked for the Center for Public Service and there was this wonderful guy that started this program. He was the Lutheran minister Carl Mattson was his name and he would always talk about building bridges and that again just stuck with me. That was such a poignant idea and theme. And you see it in your day to day, especially out here. And it's so much easier when you have face to face interactions and community interactions with people who do have different backgrounds, different political or religious beliefs, or just different life experience perspectives. That's a wonderful thing and the more we walk over those bridges and back and build them and maintain them and value them then the better we're all going to be. There's not one right way of anything. There's you know, certainly some ground rules that I think are important like treating people well and leading with kindness. But there's ways to do that when you when you disagree. And so having that bridge to two crosses is pretty darn important these days.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. I'm smiling because I'm so excited to go to the festival this summer and just like experiences in person and yeah, that's really wonderful.
There's an article I read in Montana Woman magazine titled a Badass Rodeo of Women. I just love that title and was really inspired by it. And in it, Megan Crawford, the magazine's editor, introduced the Girls Leadership Program you offer through the Red Ants Foundation as a “much needed garden.” So she wrote “That’s the powerful thing about effective mentorship – it’s a two-way street. It’s more than a teacher and a student; it’s nurtured space, tended to like an early spring garden. Tomatoes provide the shade that carrots need, carrots aerate the soil for healthy tomato roots, carrots repel onion flies and onions repel carrot flies. The best mentorships exist in symbiosis, and it’s clear that the Girls Leadership Program has grown as a much needed garden. A network of young women and mentors who are connected across the state, across disciplines, background, and experience.” That’s an experience I really wish I had growing up in rural Northeastern Montana where for several years in Junior High I was the only girl in my class. For young girls who may feel a bit isolated like I did growing up, the Girls Leadership Program sounds like an opportunity to create a rural Montana sisterhood as well as place to receive mentorship. And so I wonder if you had any formative mentorship experience, experiences led by women that inspired you? Or if it was the opposite? Did you experience a lack of mentorship opportunities led by women and you really sought to fill a gap?
Calhoun: Yeah, that's a great reflection. And Megan did such a great job capturing the essence of the program. And I think to answer your question directly, I've certainly had great mentors over the years. There's not a certain female one that really sticks out. But in general, when starting this Girls Leadership Program through our foundation, it was really taking a look at the whole landscape of women's leadership in general, and what's already on the ground working and where are there gaps. And a lot of people just assumed, we're going to do stuff about women in business, but honestly, I think there's enough resources out there right now. So I had numerous conversations with other female leaders involved in this field across the state that have been working in it for years. And Deb Newman, actually, who started Thrive in Bozeman. She and I were chatting and she was like, “Sarah, you know, there's there are a lot of programs for women and professional women and there's some really young youth stuff, but it really feels like the high school girl 15/ 16/ 17 that population is somewhat underserved statewide for a really in depth leadership program.”
So that's where we launched and it just clicked in my mind because my background was you know, after college I instructed for Outward Bound and led trail crews and worked with the high school population for years. And I was like, “oh, well, this is this is perfect. It's full circle.” So we developed this program that is a yearlong, really in-depth study on leadership, and we just select eight girls from across rural Montana every year and then eight mentors, so young professionals in their 20s or 30s, that are paired up. And what we're seeing iss it's just as much a meaningful and impactful program for the mentors, , as it is the girls. Everyone is so thirsty for it. It's incredible. So we have three weekend long retreats throughout the year, and then some webinars, and then they each work on their community project back in their hometown, so the ripple effect is really happening. And, I mean, we're learning, you know, concepts like limiting beliefs and things that I just learned at a fellowship when I was 40. If I had known at 16 what I was doing to get in my own way and how to process and think through my response and how I'm interacting and my leadership styles and mind styles and all these great skills. Like, why aren't we teaching these tools to girls early and just get it out there and so they can, they can just get further faster and really reach their potential. So the whole program is based on this concept of increasing hope for our youth, pride in our rural communities and strength and courage in our leadership. And it's been pretty awesome to see that on the ground, actually working.
Torgerson: Something else that I think is really cool about the program. I think a lot of times people who grew up in rural areas are taught to that in order to make it you need to get out of small town America. But through the programs that you're creating and the work that the students are doing, like I read, one girl created a mile and a half trail in her town. And then another young lady who was awarded the U.S. Presidential Award set up a food pantry. And like or something and made it happen. And they're making these things happen in their small towns. And I think what's really cool about your story, too, is you didn't study business, but business was a tool to do the work that you wanted to do – to make pants that fit, to support rural communities. And you're teaching these girls entrepreneurial skills, but you're not like sitting down and teaching them and this is business 101. You know, they're learning with their hands.
Calhoun: Yep, exactly. And all of the all of the learning, you know. Whether it's self-reliance and how to change a tire, which most of them already because they’re rural girls. But yeah, give them the give them the toolkit, and you know, we're not promoting necessarily leadership in business or, but it can be anything. It can be politics, it can be leadership in your church, in your community, in your civic organizations in your family. But just knowing the self awareness piece. Knowing ourselves better, and our skill sets and how we interact with the world and, and then how to be how to be stronger leaders.
Torgerson: So add a virtual gathering it for MSU Extension’s Reimagining Rural program in which a wider theme was rural brain gain, you shared six things that you learned from Red Ants, Pants’ rural revitalization efforts, including building pride. And I wonder if you could please share some of your favorite learnings from your rural revitalization efforts over the years and that you shared with that Reimagining Rural group?
Calhoun: Yeah, absolutely. So I didn't come into any of these projects with a lens of “I'm gonna, I'm going to bring some community and economic development to Meagher County” at all. Like I didn't know I didn't know those words back then, you know.
I literally just started the pants company in a place that felt really authentic to me and that's what I think leading with authenticity means and making sure it's a genuine product or service or experience you’re offering. It's got to be because otherwise your customers or community will, they'll sniff it out if it doesn't feel real. And so that's number one. And I think, you know, workwear for women in a place like White Sulphur, that's an obvious good fit. And I think with my background in trails and farming, I'm not just someone trying to make money, to make a buck selling pants. I needed to product that fit, and I knew the functionality behind it. So authenticity is key.
And then you can kind of trace my just my personal experience here with number two, I think pitching in and getting to know the place and, and contributing to civic organizations, like we talked about is a big one.
Number three, in general, I think just asking for help and finding our own personal and professional mentors is essential. I've been so so fortunate to have some pretty phenomenal mentors along the way. And there's always people out there ready to help. So don't hesitate to ask.
And when you look through the community development lens, and a lot of it is “Oh, like what can we do for bringing tourists in” or this or that. And I think it's really key to keep it true to what makes sense for the local community, not just for the outsiders coming in to spend money. Yes, that is a helpful thing for community development certainly but it has to ring true to what your neighbors are going to buy, or what your community is going to go support, whether it's the music or the food offerings or the experience whatever it is. We really need to lead with what the locals want and will support.
Yeah, building pride like we talked about and that's a that's a really neat thing like Meagher County when I moved here, The Economist just released a report naming it the lowest income of any county in the entire nation back in ’05. That’s a doozy of a title right?
Torgerson: Yeah, but it’s not that anymore.
Calhoun: No, it isn’t but you know, it's a long game though. And you got to put in your work and boots on the ground, and as you keep building and gaining traction. Like I never thought I'd be in the music festival production business after starting the pants company. Never thought I'd be in the apparel business either but once you start gaining and the ball starts rolling, people see what's possible and then like “maybe we could try business.” Or you know the brewery is a huge tourist draw now year round and the spa always has been, and the Showdown ski hill, and the Smith river and all the hunting, and the great restaurants and eateries and watering holes we have to support all those folks coming in, have always been here. And we're all just kind of building off learning one another and growing and gaining. And then you add a little more infrastructure and nice streets and sidewalks and then get the new school bill passed, and the levy and then the library was a huge fundraising project by a very, very hard working group locally. And it's just awesome to see it all rise up. You know they say “when the seas rise all the boats rise together.” So that's been pretty neat to see. So and then the pride that comes with that, I guess is where I was going with that. And it's fun to see when it's festival season people are out painting their fences and getting their yards picked up. And you know you kind of puff up a little of like “oh yeah, this is this is a where we live, White Sulphur.
And then the final one I did speak about in that talk was, I really think every community needs a dance hall and some place to gather outside of school or the bar or church where people can come together and again, just leave all their differences at the door and just be good neighbors and good humans and kick up your heels a little. And music is such an amazing tool for doing that. And it's what we always used to have in these small towns at least in the rural West, it was certainly in New England, all over – if you've got local musicians, you can play music. I mean, look at all the barn dance circuits there used to be and most towns, you know, you'd build a church, then you'd build the dance hall and I think we need to get back to that it's pretty fundamental.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah, my grandparents loved dancing. And that was so much a part of their youth you know, and I am so happy that a friend's dad taught me how to country to step and then I learned how to swing dance when I moved to Missoula for college and that was like, the most fun.
There was also one story that you shared about a young man who talked about white software after the festival had come in that I really love that story about building pride. Can you share that with those?
Calhoun: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. A great guy named Aaron Buckingham his family ranches. He's working back on the ranch now, but he was at the time at MSU and I think it must have been year two of the festival and he came up to the beer tent and he had had a few for sure and gave me a big hug and he's like “Calhoun I can't believe this like you know I grew up here and everyone always kind of makes fun of you from being from a one horse town. And now they're all talking about this festival and I am just I am so proud to be from here right now.” And that that meant so much hearing that from him. I remember sharing that with his with his parents who were good friends Maggie and Steve, the next day and we got all teary talking about it. And it's neat to see that something like a music festival, I mean yeah, it might just be a cool party in a cow pasture, but it's it is helping build a little pride for a lot of us in the area.
Torgerson: I love that story so much and I can't imagine like there being a festival in Dagmar, Montana, or Medicine Lake, where I went to school and people actually knowing where that is. Like that never happens, it’s so cool.
So yeah, you're somewhat of a household name in Montana. And my dad for instance was very excited to hear that I was interviewing you, and I think one of the few things he looks forward to when he retires from farming after the 2022 harvest is going to the Red Ants Pants festival. Yeah, I can't wait to go with my dad. But yeah I was wondering what it's like to be kind of famous in Montana?
Calhoun: Oh it's funny cause you know that Miranda Lambert song like Everyone's famous in a small town. I'm literally just minding my own business trying to make the pants company profitable and keep my head above water running the festival and whatnot. And everyone knows everyone in a small town and then you go out of town or to the airport or whatnot. And it's always surprises me when people are like, “are you Sarah, will you sign this” and I'm like, okay, it's totally laughable to me honestly. Because I'd like to think I'm pretty down to earth and just a normal community member here. But it's, you know, I will say there's some leverage to it that can be really helpful when you need help on projects or support or donors or whatnot. That’s something I'm very fortunate and appreciative of. When I pick up the phone people often answer, which is, which is nice. You can get a lot done with that.
Torgerson: So yeah, that's cool. When people speak about your story and your inspiration to move to this small central Montana town of white Sulphur Springs, they often bring up Ivan Doig's memoir, This House of Sky, the book that inspired your moved to his hometown. So you recently purchased the Ringling Mansion, the house that Doig wrote his iconic first book in. And I wonder what owning this amazing space means to you and to your dreams for the future of Red Ants Pants.
Calhoun: Oh, yeah, it's really exciting. So this was a project I've been dreaming about. And, you know, doing a lot of personal financial juggling and trying to figure out how I can make it work. And talking with the previous owner Marga Johnson, who grew up in this home and it's a beautiful historic Victorian on the edge of town that has only been owned by three separate families over the years. So Dr. Parberry that built it from Kentucky, one of the founders of town. And then John Ringling, the circus family. And then Marga’s family. So it's an honor just in that to be the fourth owner of this glorious place. So my vision for it, and it's coming to life as we speak is – so I do live there. But also making it a kind of a social club and boarding house. And I have a handful of longer term tenants because there's a couple of suites upstairs, one of which Ivan and Carroll did live in in 1977. And I didn't even know this until probably my eighth time touring the place, as I was working towards being able to purchase it. And then she just mentioned it offhand and I was like “stop it, you're kidding me like Ivan Doig, lived in this very apartment right here, like this is the stove he cooked on.” And she's like “oh yeah, you know.” And then I connected with Carol his lovely widow who she got all excited. And Ivan and I had been pen pals for a while before he passed and I did get a chance to meet him down in Bozeman. And Carol is like “oh we'll have to put a plaque and you know name it the Doig suite,” and then she sent me all of his journal entries from July of 1977 when they did live in there. He was doing a lot of local interviews with folks for This House of Sky, so he was just renting that apartment. And it's just such a neat history and did the full circle nature of the things that drew me to this community because of that book. And it just feels like it's meant to be and so spot on. I've had random folks come in and visit and stay over and one wonderful lady because she had heard this story she just gifted me with a typewriter the same model that Ivan used, a royal. So I'll have the typewriter in his suite and have the full library down in the in the great room and it's just really fun to have this vision of a community gathering place come together. And you know, we'll do different workshops and probably do our carpentry workshops in the basement and then some of our songwriters are already jacked up to come and do songwriting workshops. And I've got the Chamber of Commerce barn quilt painters in the basement. So they rent that out painting all those big barn quilts. And the house feels like it's coming alive again. And it's happy to have all this activity in it. And you know, just this past week, we were able to house a lot of the evacuees from the local fire up on Deep Creek Canyon, so yeah, it feels really good. It's a lot of work and it's a lot of house to take care of and to fix up but it's pretty incredible spot.
Torgerson: Wow, how many rooms is it?
Calhoun: 21 rooms and nine baths, all told. The whole third floor used to be the servant’s quarters which has a couple rooms. I haven’t even gotten to that yet. And then seven bedrooms and five baths on the second floor that are all rentable, or will be.
Torgerson: So I have a couple questions to wrap us up. I’m wondering have the rural issues you’re passionate about today grown or evolved since you first founded the Red Ants Pants company, festival, foundation?
Calhoun: It was just personally be in the world, living in a small town in an rural place that had a lot of agricultural ties and so that has maintained over the years, but what I think has been developing and still is hopefully, is just seeing what is possible and the potential of entrepreneurship and small business, and community development and what we can do to revitalize rural and really support and enrich these communities and change this whole narrative about the brain drain, and you know what’s being said out there, the whole urban rural divide and all this. And I think there’s just so much potential for small town America. And honestly I think it’s going to help ourselves and our humanity and our culture to encourage more people to live the rural lifestyle and start businesses. These are the businesses that are the backbone of our communities. And we’re the ones that support the little league team and all the fundraisers across the whole county, and the ones you know you can count on and they’re your neighbors and you know keeping those dollars local. And all that is so important and so transparent when you’re actually living in these communities. And when you think about it the cost of living is typically lower. The quality of life is higher. We might not have the fanciest downtown Seattle restaurants, but we have some really good steak houses and watering holes here. There’s good education there’s now excellent, with all the rural remote healthcare and rural remote job stuff, there’s a lot of opportunities for economic development and how to create a little more industry in small towns. And then often we have really good internet, surprisingly in some of these places. And real estate is cheaper and saving these old historic buildings in our downtowns, I think that’s really important and a valuable thing because they’re not getting made the way they used to be. So yeah I just think it’s the wave of the future honestly.
Torgerson: Yeah well I thank you for all the work that you’re doing to fight for the rural west and to really be a model for other small towns in Montana and beyond. There’s this project that I referred back to when I was working on my thesis called Rural Prosperity Through The Arts And Creative Sector, and Red Ants Pants Music Festival is cited on like page two and I was just so proud to read that and so excited for the future you’re helping make for rural America.
Calhoun: Awesome, thank you.
Torgerson: To close us out I wonder if you could participate in an envisioning exercise with me and paint a picture for listeners of the future you want to see for rural America and rural Montana.
Calhoun: I think seeing a lot of youth move back home and rural Montana is a really valuable one. I think seeing increased diversity is an important thing that hopefully we can all encourage and welcome, I think that will only enrich all our communities. And certainly the economic development base, but more community-driven projects and services, and arts and culture, that’s a huge one. And I think that’s where a lot of it lays to have fun things to attract youth back too, when we have fun things going on and cultural events. And it’s so easy to do. So let’s have more music, and more art, and more theater, and more historical trails and walks and appreciation, and more barn dances and dance halls, I think. And also I think it’s worth noting the natural resource extraction that a lot of these communities face and if we are doing that and need these resources, how do we do that in a more sustainable, community-driven way, not just using profit as our guiding light. Figuring out how to do that responsibly is a big challenge for a lot of these western towns certainly. And I do believe there’s ways we can figure it out and it’s 2021 and that is our responsibility to do so. So I think that would be a beautiful new vision for rural Montana.
Torgerson: Well thank you so much Sarah.
Calhoun: I sure appreciate your support and all your efforts in putting focus and attention and study into this because I do think it’s a really valuable asset for our nation. And it’s where a lot of the magic lies.
Torgerson (narrating): In the next full episode, airing October 28, you’ll get to know Jake Bullinger, a freelance journalist, and former founding editor of Bitterroot Magazine, a publication dedicated to essential stories about the politics, economy, culture, and environment of the American West. But before then stay tuned for a special bonus episode where you’ll be transported to White Sulphur Springs and the Red Ants Pants Music Festival!
Be sure you’ve subscribed to Reframing Rural wherever you get your podcasts. This ten episode season we’re launching a new episode on the last Thursday of every month. I produced and edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on ancestral Duwamish and Blackfeet lands. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music is composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana, and listeners like you.
Visit reframingrural.org to find links to resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.
Thank you for listening!
Red Ants Pants Girls Leadership Program
MSU Extension’s Reimaging Rural program
Sarah Calhoun’s Reimagining Rural Talk
Gettysburg College: Center for Public Service
A Badass Rodeo of Women, Megan Crawford
Thrive nonprofit in Bozeman
Rural Prosperity Through The Arts And Creative Sector
This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Ivan Doig
Guest: Sarah Calhoun
Host, creator, producer, editor and mixer: Megan Torgerson
Music: Andrew Drinnan
SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS: