By Brad Reynolds
White Sulphur Springs always had the potential to be a great small town destination. It’s a community surrounded by mountains and waterbodies. It has its own hot springs, its own golf course, its own castle. Drinking, dining, and shopping opportunities abound here. And its southcentral location makes it a reasonable weekend getaway from any corner of the state.
It’s a great place to visit.
It’s a great place to live.
Beyond the attractions, the stores, and the scenery, White Sulphur Springs is charming because of its people. Lifestyles range a broad spectrum—agriculturists, entrepreneurs, outdoorsmen—and (for the most part) everyone coexists harmoniously, united in their love of White Sulphur, an attractive town with something for everybody.
That said, it’s been no easy feat developing the community into what it is today. When the Castle Mountain lumber mill closed in the mid-1980s, it dealt White Sulphur a major economic blow. Roughly ten percent of the population had been employed by the mill. They had homes here. They were raising families. They’d planted roots, and now, they were jobless. A series of complex sociological obstacles needed to be overcome if the community was to forge a new path. The mill had been their livelihood, but they would persist without it.
Its closure would not be their legacy.
On White Sulphur Springs’ Main Street sits Berg’s Garage, a third generation gas station and auto repair shop which has served the area for 100 years. To put that in perspective, the founder, Helmar Berg, was marketing automobiles at a time when the horse and buggy was Meagher County’s preferred mode of transportation. He trained his clients how to operate these new-fangled vehicles, as his freight service hauled in some of the first electric power poles to the region. Needless to say, the Bergs have witnessed (and facilitated) a great deal of change in the last century. They’ve watched the ebb and flow of White Sulphur’s economy, seen its rise with the heyday of the mill, and its decline after the closure. Now, they say, they appear to be witnessing a rebirth.
“There’s some real forward thinking going on here,” says Jack Berg, who operates the business with his brother, Jay. “You can feel that. There’s new life here.”
One reason for this is the Black Butte Copper Project, which seeks to mine one of the highest grade copper deposits in the world. Such a mine could potentially create hundreds of jobs in White Sulphur.
“I think we already had a good sense of who we are before the mine. We’re all a cast of characters, and this gave hope for all of us to start investing in the community,” says local Nancy Schlepp, Public Relations Director of Sandfire Resources, the company behind the project.
For years, Sandfire Resources has studied the environmental impact of mining this copper deposit, ensuring that the area’s natural resources will be protected. But more than that, the company is working closely with the community to help White Sulphur Springs plan for a future beyond the mine.
“The mine will close. We want to use this time wisely to become who we want to be for the next three generations,” explains Schlepp. “It’s really important for us to focus on the future and foster economic growth.”
She notes that there are many like-minded individuals in the community working toward this goal.
White Sulphur Springs is not a town short on visionaries.
A Vision for the Future
White Sulphur Springs wouldn’t be where it is today without its philanthropists and dreamers. The credit belongs to many, but ask anyone to name the ringleader, and they’ll likely point to Sarah Calhoun.
In 2006, Calhoun opened Red Ants Pants on Main Street, and in 2011, the Red Ants Pants Music Festival began welcoming thousands of visitors to town. The annual event became the catalyst for White Sulphur Springs’ upsurge in development, and many cite Calhoun as an inspiration for their own entrepreneurial spirit.
“Sarah paved the path and set the bar. She showed us it was possible,” says Alaina Gordon, co-owner of Twin Sisters Trading, a sporting goods business that includes fishing and hunting gear, camping supplies, clothing, gifts, and even a Montana State Liquor Store.
Like Gordon, a lot of the new business owners in town are young locals who want a future in their community. And like Gordon, a lot of them are women.
“Women are smart, saavy, and tough in this town. Most businesses are either owned 100 percent, 50 percent, or fully managed by a woman,” says Gordon. “Womanpower is insane here. We have a strong female force.”
Included in this is new business owner Heather Novark, who in 2019 opened Smith River Custom Apparel, a garment design company which caters largely to local clientele.
“I have two boys in school. Hornets apparel and gear is what started this,” Novark explains. “Shipping costs and communication gaps make it more difficult to order custom products online. I wanted to offer something like this that’s conveniently here in White Sulphur.”
Along with students and business owners, a number of community event organizers have come to Novark to place orders. People stop in to buy Montana-themed and White Sulphur Springs apparel. Everyone, it seems, loves demonstrating pride in their community.
The Getaway that’s not Far Away
Community pride is palpable in White Sulphur. Main Street is lined with mom and pops. Sidewalks are kempt. Residents wave hello. The atmosphere is so thick with hospitality that it stops you in your tracks. White Sulphur Springs is not a town you pass through; it’s a place you stay.
“Our community is super welcoming. We want you here,” says Amber Coburn.
In 2018, at only twenty years old, she and her twin sister, Cassie, opened a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge and eatery called The Jawbone. Between the business and college (in Helena), it’s been quite the balancing act, but the sisters consider it a worthwhile investment in their futures—and in the future of the community.
“Our mom [and owner of Bar 47], Kimberly Deschene, has had a huge impact on the revitalization of the community and was the one who really urged us to invest in our community,” says Cassie. “White Sulphur Springs is changing for the better. More and more people want to spend time here. We’re becoming a destination spot.”
At the local 2 Basset Brewery, Chris Hedrich says something similar; “Our community is giving people more reasons to come here. My husband [and co-owner of the brewery], Barry, calls it the getaway that’s not far away.”
This unofficial slogan now appears on a banner adjacent to the brewery. It’s a message to visitors that the community is worth exploring, and it’s a reminder to residents that White Sulphur Springs is on the rise.
“It used to be that there was never a parking spot on Main Street. I think we’re getting back to that,” says Hedrich. “It’s very exciting to see.”