Philipsburg turns 150 years old this summer, and the small town plans to celebrate in a big way.
Up-and-coming singer/songwriter Jeremy McComb is bringing some of his songwriting friends from Nashville to town Aug. 19 for the Philipsburg Summer Concert. The celebration also includes two Montana bands: The Cold Hard Cash Show delivers authentic renditions of songs by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three, and Shodown plays everything from bluegrass, swing and country to rock ’n roll.
According to Jim Jenner, a filmmaker, Rotary member and avid P-Burg booster, the town has plenty to be proud of.
The community’s revitalization earned it Sunset Magazine’s Travel Award in 2015 for Best Municipal Reinvention. Getting there took “lots of luck,” says Jenner. “And we’re blessed with real assets and people who care about them.”
Another factor is the willingness of old timers “to embrace new ideas that enhance the quality of life here.”
The county seat, which prides itself on having no box stores and only one stoplight, was on its last legs in the late 1970s and 80s. The mining and timber industries that had built a robust economy were in decline and Philipsburg was on the rocks.
“Buildings were so cheap the bank had to repossess many of them,” says Jenner. But instead of destroying the town’s historic district, the bank hired painters to apply a fresh coat of paint, and investors began to acquire and renovate downtown storefronts.
Among them were Tim and Claudia Dringle, who brought the Philipsburg Opera House back to life and open its doors each summer for a season of live theater; and Shirley Beck and Dale Siegford, whose Sapphire Gallery and adjacent Sweet Palace continue to lure travelers off the interstate.
In 2003, the local Rotary Club decided to honor its parent organization’s 100th anniversary by building an outdoor ice arena at Winninghoff Park, on the skeleton of a 40-year-old rink. Wisely, says Jenner, they invited a class from Montana Tech in Butte to complete an analysis of the site. In addition to an NHL-size rink, the plan suggested sculpting a tiered amphitheater into the adjacent hillside.
On Valentine’s Day in 2004 the community was invited to the site for free skating, a raffle and a concert. “Once they had a picture of what it could be, checks just started coming in,” says Jenner.
Another factor in the arena’s success was the community’s can-do attitude, epitomized by local rancher Ed Lord. “He joined Rotary, said the arena was a little small, and showed up with his bulldozer and doubled the size.”
Donations, large and small, helped them open the ice rink in 2006. When they received a donated Zamboni to groom the rink, the Rotary built a 2,400 square-foot building to accommodate the machine – and a slew of community activities.
Lord and his dozer helped terrace the hillside above the rink to seat up to 3,000, and he used the frame from a trailer house to craft a mobile stage. By 2010, the amphitheater “was ready for prime time.”
It has since been home to annual summer concerts, and for two years, 2015 and ’16, attracted sold-out crowds for the Aber Day Reunion Concert.
This year, in honor of the town’s anniversary, the community decided to return to organizing its own summer concert. The site has “great acoustics,” making if a favorite for performers and audiences alike. It’s just a block from the historic downtown and has plenty of parking; good food and brews from Philipsburg Brewery are also available.
Tickets are $35-$40, $15 for ages 7-12 and free for 6 and under. Gates open at 11 a.m., and show time is noon; visit philipsburgrotary.org for details.
– Kristi Niemeyer