Montana’s Prettiest Painted Town

By —— Bio and Archives--July 31, 2011

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imageNestled in the foothills on the edge of broad and spacious Flint Creek Valley, surrounded by mountains laden in past times with vast deposits of silver, manganese, sapphires, and to a lesser extent gold, beautiful historic Philipsburg is an anomaly because it’s still standing. As one of twenty rowdy mining communities that once thrived within thirty miles of here only “P-burg” withstood the test of time. Battered and bruised and knocked down by devastating booms-and-busts endemic to that world of hard rock mining, Philipsburg kept getting up, dusted itself off and dug in for the long haul.

Granite, Tower, Rumsey, Black Pine and all the rest, home to thousands of scruffy men in those late 19th and early 20th century glory days, have vanished. Things quieted in their wake leaving us blank spots on a map or relics to ponder; crumbling foundations and rotting timbers and disintegrating piles of brick. These haunts of fanciful apparitions are a repository of story, gripping tales of hard-working men calloused inside and out, toiling twelve deadly hours each and every day, seven days a week under miserable conditions down there in the dark.


Charming Philipsburg has been spared the fate these lesser towns suffered and has matured in to one of Montana’s most cherished sapphires in the rough. As a result of painstaking efforts to restore Philipsburg to it’s colorful heyday, this National Historic District boasts no less than 50 outstanding structures that continue to surprise and delight countless tourists yearly who flock to this town of 900 that has garnered noteworthy accolades. And this isn’t chamber of commerce hyperbole.


Brimming with picturesque 1880s and 1890s architecture, Philipsburg’s historic commercial district has been a finalist on that vaunted list of “Prettiest Painted Places” in the American West. Among Montana’s many historic towns and cities, Philipsburg has been crowned the prettiest painted of all. The town, and its friendly, resilient people have also been the subject of two documentaries. It has enjoyed national exposure on the Today Show, and has been selected by national historic preservation organizations as one of the country’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations.” And, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation went so far as to call it a “piece of heaven in the Big Sky Country.”


There’s plenty to see and do in Philipsburg, and the locals will welcome you with open arms even if you don’t buy anything. Are you sick and tired of your teeth? Would you like to gum your way through the remainder of your meals? Then visit Philipsburg’s 75-year-old Victorian confectionary, the Sweet Palace, a world-famous candy store that makes delectable delectables that are shipped to all 50 states. Offering 900 selections, there’s enough sugar in there to keep your dentist driving BMWs in to mid-century. Fresh caramel, taffy, chocolate creamy things and giant lollipops, the list and variety seems endless. So if sticky incisors and hyperactive toddlers running into traffic make your day, a visit to the “Sweet Palace” is mandatory.


Forget gold. Up here folks suffered from sapphire fever (think rubies), pretty little gems colored different shades of blue, pink, red and yellow, and maybe green, first discovered in 1894 near Gem Peak on Rock Creek. Used not only in women’s jewelry and fine instrument bearings, strong demand was also fueled by makers of Swiss watches, files, phonograph needles, and emery boards and cloth. Rock Creek is known for sapphires exhibiting unusually sharp and crisp colors, and the good news is you and your family can mine sapphires sitting down, for fun, because the dirty work has already been done.


No need to make your wife stand in ice cold water up to her knobby knees swatting mosquitoes and carving up the rocky soil with a high-powered hydraulic cannon. You and yours can “mine” sapphires – also known as sitting at a table picking through a pile of little rocks – in the comfort of the Mining Room at the Sapphire Gallery, or up at Gem Mountain, both establishments offering sapphire jewelry, gemstones, heat treating and faceting, and more.


Care to suspend your disbelief? Do you need to laugh at someone beside your boss? Then take in a play or vaudeville act. Big, rectangular and built in 1891, and acclaimed by the Missoulian as “a jewel in the crown of Montana,” the Historic Opera House Theater is the oldest operating theater in Montana and every season produces original works by Montana playwrights, the last time I checked.

Do you prefer things that go Vroom! in the night? The Flint Creek Valley Car Show, more “fine art” than car, will have you babbling, “cool, man,” and set your loins to tingling at the roar of those noisy V-8s revving up. Featured twice in Cruisin’ Magazine, this “classic car” extravaganza draws a steady stream of enthusiasts and the casually curious who appreciate the higher meaning of the internal combustion engine.

imageThey understand it’s not just transportation; it’s nirvana on wheels. Plastic, steel, rubber and paint, and super-shiny fiberglass, if you approach these greatly-beloved machines from an artist’s perspective, and recognize the defining role they played in America’s cultural landscape you just might “get it.” You don’t have to be a greasy motor-head to enjoy the glitter and pomp, and the best part of not owning one of these things is you won’t get your fingernails dirty or skin your knuckles twisting 5/8 wrenches, and the old lady won’t yell at you for wiping 30-weight on your new Wranglers. And you don’t have to worry about some drunk at the car show throwing up last night’s pepperoni pizza on the most convenient hundred-thousand-dollar masterpiece. That’s someone else’s headache.

Those daring rock miners of old were proudly referred to as a “man’s man.” No, not that kind of man. These fellows weren’t from San Francisco, never skipped to work, and most definitely didn’t marry each other, that we know of. Philipsburg miners dangled brass and were tough as nails, hard as rocks and brave beyond measure. These hombres scraped out a living deep underground, chipping and chopping their way down cramped mine shafts thousands of feet below the surface in cold, wet conditions that had them sitting on their lunch buckets in the dark between dynamite blasts asking the big question: “Why am I doing this?”


To honor Philipsburg’s hard rock heritage each September the town celebrates Miner’s Union Days with picnics and 19th century mining competitions attracting some of the Rockies’ best hard rock miners. Here’s what you can expect to see: Jackleg drilling cuts through rock by blending water and air pressure. Top diggers also drive spikes into timbers by sledge and hand, and engage in mucking competitions where miners see how fast they can remove muck that’s left behind following a blast of dynamite – not exactly a level playing field. And they go head-to-head loading rock with a mine car, a little one. Think it’s easy? Try doing that half a mile underground.


So the next time you’re driving down the Interstate between Butte and Missoula take the Highway 1 loop that connects Drummond and Anaconda for a step back in to history and visit Philipsburg, the prettiest painted town in all of Montana. You’ll be glad you did.



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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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