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Big things happen in small towns

White Sulphur Springs businesswoman discusses success

"Big things are happening in small towns."

That's the encouraging message Sarah Calhoun had for Havre Area Chamber of Commerce members.

Calhoun spoke at the Chamber's annual luncheon at the Duck Inn Wednesday.

Calhoun is the founder of Red Ants Pants, the Red Aunts Summer Festival and the Red Ants Pants Foundation.

She told the audience of how she moved from Connecticut to Montana settling temporarily in Bozeman.

But she said she never felt at home in Bozeman, it was just too large.

Montana author Ivan Doig wrote of his hometown of White Sulphur Springss, and she decided to open her business, Red Ants Pants, in the tiny Meagher County community.

She decided to go into the women's jeans business because she always found that there were no work pants for women - that women always had to wear poor-fitting men's work pants.

She laughed about her arrival in White Sulphur Springs, saying she felt "lonely and scared," and how her new neighbors made her feel at home. She fell in love with the community, and loved the fact that her store was 17 steps from the Stockman bar.

She remembered being taken aback when she heard of how bad the economy in Meagher County was, but being the optimist, she said "It can only go up from here."

Calhoun purchased an historic building in downtown White Sulphur Springs - complete with tin ceiling - restored it and opened it as a headquarters for her business.

She sold jeans from her storefront and via mail. Her business took off.

In today's world, she said, things have changed. With the Internet, mail, FedEx and UPS, there is immediate contact with the outside world, and there is no need to be located in an urban center.

Her marketing efforts have included a visit to communities around the west that she delights in calling the "Tour de Pants."

She decided that her adopted hometown needed a good party, so she started the annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival.

Having no idea whether it would succeed, she convinced some singers to come to town for the festival.

More than 6,000 people came to town, tripling the population, and the community pitched in to make it a success.

There were problems with the small town dealing with such a crowd, she said, noting that she thinks she had to buy out all of the toilet paper supply in three counties to meet the needs of the visitors.

The festival has grown every year since, she said. Last year, 14,000 people took part.

Over the years, many top singers have performed, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

She is still hoping to get Dolly Parton.

She put up the money for the festival, "but it took the whole community to pull it it off."

Community groups ranging from school groups to Scouts help out each year.

The money raised at the concert goes to the Red Ants Pants Foundation, that funds small projects aimed at helping women businesses and rural community projects.

Several years ago, she was invited by President Barack Obama to attend a White House conference on rural business.

While she was in Washington, D.C., the hometown newspaper, unbeknownst to her, wrote a story about the conference.

She recalled with delight that upon her return to the town, she stopped at the Stockman for a burger and a beer.

While she was there, several ranchers stopped by and said to her "Sarah, you made us proud," she said, adding that that made her proud.


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