By Hope Good
The town of White Sulphur Springs first got my attention last year when I attended and much enjoyed their highly successful Red Ants Pants Music Festival in July. I felt a real sense of community pride so I not only decided to make the Red Ants Pants an annual tradition but also decided to spend some time in the town to see if I could, in good conscience, recommend it as a Montana destination.
White Sulphur Springs gets its name from its thermal springs and the white deposits that are left by the hot water that bubbles up in the area. These springs have been used for hundreds of years as a place of peace, rest, and healing.
The area is steeped in history so it’s easy to discover a true sense of “Old Montana.” Situated close to central Montana and formed in 1867, Meagher is one of the oldest countiesin the state. Its early settlement was due to the discovery of gold in Madison County in 1863, which attracted miners and prospectors and resulted in the discovery of other various sources of mineral wealth throughout the mountainous regions of Meagher County. The mines produced such an abundance of gold that the county seat was moved from Diamond City to White Sulphur Springs (by then a noted health resort) in 1879 by a general election.
Looking up Knob Hill, Roger Sherman’s 19th century Victorian mansion better known as “the Castle” looms over the White Sulphur community. Completed in 1892, it was made to order for the roaming rancher-businessman as “a permanent memorial to his efforts in helping to develop the hamlet of White Sulphur Springs.” It was specially built from stout granite blocks that were hand cut in the nearby Castle Mountains and then hauled to town by oxen. In addition to ranching, Sherman operated stage lines between White Sulphur Springs and Neihart, as well as Castle and Townsend. He also made considerable profits from the silver mines in the area. Charles H. Sherman, who took over the property from his father in 1902, sold the Castle to Michael Donahoe of Seattle in 1905 when he established ranching interests in the county. The Donahoe heirs, Walter, Charles, and Kathleen, donated it to the Meagher County Historical Society in 1967 to be used as a historical museum. The museum has been totally restored and is complete with period furniture, mineral samples, clothing, and artifacts from the region’s past. A large carriage house was added behind the castle to house the carriages and sleds that had been stored in several ranchers’ barns. Also added were the old bank, a schoolroom, a stagecoach from the Canyon Ferry line, two horse-drawn fire engines, and saddles, chaps, and mementos from the days of the open range. (The Castle Museum is open May 15 to September 15.)
Nearby White Sulphur Springs is the old mining town of Castle City, a silver and lead-producing town. Founded around the late 1870s, the town grew to around 2,000 residents during its peak period. Probably the best-known one-time resident of Castle City was Calamity Jane. She opened a restaurant in Castle City in the 1890s and lived there for a time before returning to Deadwood. Like many other mine towns, the silver panic of 1893 caused the town to die rapidly. It was finally abandoned by the last residents in the 1930s. Today you can still see the remains of the town, but it is located on private lands and permission is required for access.
The discovery of gold, silver, lead, and copper in the area also brought about the establishment of Camp Baker, about seventeen miles west of town, in 1869 to protect settlers from Indian raids. Named Fort Logan in 1877, the post was abandoned in 1880. The block house which remains standing was given to the Meagher County Historical Society by Mrs. Sidney Berg. It was restored in 1924 by the D.A.R. and moved in 1962 to the center of the old parade ground on private property. The unusually designed log blockhouse with its square second floor set at 45 degree angle to the likewise square plan of the first floor, presents an eight-sided defensive structure. A small Fort Logan blockhouse replica can be found in White Sulphur Springs.
– Todd Klassy
More iconic landmarks can be seen in small surrounding communities. About a half hour from White Sulphur Springs are two widely photographed historic churches. One of them is the Trinity Lutheran Church of Lennep. Constructed in 1914, it is the second oldest Lutheran congregation in Montana. Today Lennep is abandoned, with a number of buildings remaining and in reasonable condition, including the old church and store.
Nearby in Ringling, the Ringling Bar (the only business in town) offers great western hospitality and awesome steaks. The town was founded by John Ringling, one of the brothers of the Ringling Brothers’ Circus, as part of his plan to build a railroad connection between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Even with its small size, Ringling captures the imagination. Much of author Ivan Doig’s classic memoir This House of Sky takes place in the Ringling area and the beautiful St John’s Catholic Church continuously captivates photographers.
Another historic community a short drive (about 37 minutes) away is Martinsdale, known for the Bair Family Museum which is located a mile from town. The Charles M. Bair family was one of Montana’s wealthiest and most philanthropic families. They supported scholarships, youth organizations, the arts, and music. It was the wish of sisters Marguerite and Alberta that their home be left as a museum for others to enjoy. The Bair Family Art Museum, built in 2011, sits adjacent to the late 19th century Charles M. Bair family home along the Upper Mussellshell River. The museum features five state-of-the-art, climate controlled galleries that present the Bair family’s Native American collection, Western paintings by Charles M. Russell and Joseph Henry Sharp, Edward S. Curtis’ photogravures, and a diverse collection of modern European and American paintings. There is lodging in Martinsdale at the Crazy Mountain Inn Restaurant which also serves some of the best food in Montana. Esquire magazine recently said it is home to “The World’s Best Chicken Fried Steak.” It is also known to have some of the best pie in the state.
Outdoor recreation abounds as White Sulphur Springs lies in the middle of the Smith River Valley and is sheltered by several mountain ranges on the shortest, most scenic route between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. White Sulphur Springs is the ideal starting or ending point for excursions into the Smith River Canyon and Smith River State Park. (The Smith is a permit-only float.)
Hunting, fishing, skiing, hiking, and biking are just a few of the endless possibilities for those who enjoy the great outdoors. A 71-mile stretch of US Hwy 89, running north and south through Meagher County, has been designated the Kings Hill Scenic Byway. Mountain streams, hiking trails, and gravel roads lead from the main highway, offering access to phenomenal recreation. A ranger district office of the Lewis & Clark National Forest is located in White Sulphur Springs with maps and information available about the area.
Year-round fishing opportunities include Bair Reservoir, Lake Sutherlin, Martinsdale Reservoir, and Newlan Creek Reservoir. The Musselshell River, Smith River, and numerous small mountain streams tempt anglers in the summer.
– Todd Klassy
Although White Sulphur Springs is a small town, it seemed large to me. Perhaps it was because I met so many people passing through, as well as getting reacquainted with old classmates, college friends, and relatives (which was something I hadn’t expected). There were so many wonderful surprises. Upon entering town, I stopped at Berg Garage for gas and was treated with a blast from the past – a full service gas station.
I didn’t know they still existed. At Cougar Merc, I was able to explore the world of small town department store shopping and scored some unique finds. The town even boasts two grocery stores, a golf course, a theatre, and, of course, the Spa Hot Springs. The people who greeted me were warm, welcoming, and very friendly. But what probably impressed me the most was the abundance of great food and drinks, with a variety of eateries, coffee stops, bars, and a new microbrewery. Best of all, the food is locally homemade and made me want to keep coming back for more.
I was not alone in my quest for the perfect destination; others were there too on their own journeys. This town may have had its struggles – as all rural Montana towns do – but it glows in its outlook toward a brighter future. The highway through town is being rebuilt, including new sidewalks and street lights. A new bakery is about to open along with a new library and school. Residents are preparing for the upcoming Red Ants Pants Music Festival the end of the month which brings thousands of people into this small community.
What began for me as a stop in town evolved into the exploration of a community, its businesses, and the people and attractions which make it great. White Sulphur Springs is most definitely a destination I would recommend to anyone. In Montana, our small towns are our best-kept secrets, constantly being discovered by people passing through our state who enjoy the things we take for granted. I can attest that I really enjoyed getting away from fast foods and box stores to a place where I could enjoy the simple pleasures in life that a small town has to offer.