Every year, around the end of July, something spectacular happens in the rural town of White Sulphur Springs. Residents paint fences and tend gardens. Local retailers set up decorations and tidy their store fronts. And in a cow pasture not five miles from town, volunteers prepare the landscape for the arrival of thousands of visitors – a stampede of people who come every year to enjoy incredible live music in a venue unlike anywhere else on Earth.
This is the Red Ants Pants Music Festival.
The success of the Red Ants Pants Music Festival requires the efforts of everyone in White Sulphur Springs, and while the small community cooperates much like a colony of ants, that is not where the festival gets its name. To fully appreciate the festival you need to understand Red Ants Pants, the local retailer that directs the event. And to understand the business, you need to know about Sarah Calhoun.
When Sarah set out to found her own apparel business, she began with one goal in mind – to create a good pair of working pants for women. Having grown up on a llama farm in Connecticut, and having spent years working on trails with Outward Bound and the Student Conservation Association, Sarah was no stranger to a hard day’s work and not one to complain about manual labor. What did bother her, however, was the discomfort she felt wearing work pants that were designed for men. They never fit right. They were too tight in the butt and gaped at the waist. This caused wear on both the pants and Sarah’s torso, leaving her sore, frustrated, and fantasizing what a good pair pants would be like.
This fantasy was still on Sarah’s mind in 2005, as she sat in a Bozeman coffee shop reading How to Start a Business for Dummies. “I had no experience in business or apparel,” says Sarah, “but I was eager to learn.”
As Sarah read her book, a man walking by took interest. He asked her what type of business she wanted to start and she told him that she wanted to fill a gap in the apparel industry – a need for women’s workwear. Intrigued, the man introduced himself as Richard Siberell, a clothing designer with more than twenty years’ experience at Patagonia! Siberell connected Sarah with people who would get her idea off the ground.
Over the course of the year, Sarah gained knowledge about the apparel industry, developed contacts, and laid out the framework for her business, which she dubbed Red Ants Pants, a name that was both fun and fitting. (In a colony, worker ants all have one thing in common – they’re female.)
In 2006 Sarah opened for business along White Sulphur Springs’ Main Street and has since become an entrepreneurial icon. In 2011 Governor Schweitzer named her the Entrepreneur of the Year for the State of Montana, and in 2012 she was invited by President Obama to attend a White House forum on jobs and economic development after being named the Small Business Administration National Woman in Business Champion.
Through hard work and grass roots marketing, Red Ants Pants has transcended Sarah’s initial vision. The business isn’t just providing comfortable workwear options for women; it’s allowing Sarah to inspire and mentor women in business and agriculture.
And that’s where the Red Ants Pants Music Festival comes in.
In 2011 Sarah was in the process of establishing educational workshops that would develop and expand leadership roles for women, particularly those in rural communities. At the same time, Red Ants Pants was exploring ways to bring together all the people it had met over years of face-to-face marketing. It was decided that a music festival would be the perfect way to entice people to come connect and celebrate rural Montana, and that the proceeds from the event could be used to fund Sarah’s educational workshops. Just like that, the Red Ants Pants Music Festival and Red Ants Pants Foundation were born.
Although the women of Red Ants Pants were used to hard work, this was unlike anything they’d done before. It was going to take a lot of effort to make the music festival a success. Acquiring music, of course, was at the top of the to-do list and finding a proper venue was crucial as well.
Sarah worked closely with a booking agent to secure the festival’s musical talent and set out to secure a location for the festival herself. She wanted a spot that would be authentic to Red Ants Pants’ values – somewhere that would reflect the working women who had built and supported the business. In the end, a ranch seemed only natural and a local couple, Scott and Lynn Jackson, offered their sloped cow posture for Red Ants Pants’ three-day celebration.
Red Ants Pants worked very closely with local residents and ranchers as it planned the event. Vendors were obtained, county law enforcement was notified, and many tickets were sold in advance to ensure that the event would not be a bust. When it came time to open the gates for the very first Red Ants Pants Music Festival, 6,000 people flooded in. “There was a lot of lost sleep before that first festival,” says Sarah, “but it was worth it. So many people showed up that we had to buy the entire toilet paper supply across three counties to accommodate everyone. We’ve been in the black ever since that first year.”
Five years later, the Red Ants Pants Music Festival continues to draw in thousands of fans eager to hear some of Country Music’s biggest acts. “It’s great to see so many people from different backgrounds come down for a common good,” says Sarah. “Everyone seems to be the best version of themselves here.”
What’s more, the event seems to bring out the best in White Sulphur Springs. Shortly after Sarah moved there, she attended her first Chamber of Commerce meeting. It was reported that Meagher County, of which White Sulphur Springs is the county seat, had recently been mentioned in Economist Magazine… as
the poorest county in the United States. Since that first Red Ants Pants Music Festival, White Sulphur Springs has seen a year- round increase in tourism as well as a renewal in civic pride. Sarah declines to take credit for the town’s economic improvement, instead stating that it is the result of everyone’s hard work and cooperation. “It’s a collective effort and I think it’s a pretty neat example of what can happen when we come together.”
The Red Ants Pants Music Festival is July 28-31, 2016. For more information, visit redantspantsmusicfestival.com.