July 16, Philipsburg, Montana
We’re ready to back the Behemoth out of its parking slot on Broadway, where it’s idled since we arrived in town. After five days, it’s time to say goodbye to Philipsburg.
This morning we drove up into the hills in search of our friend Christina from the Club Bar, who is building a house from straw bales and found boulders. We feared we’d come upon her while she was bathing in their outdoor tub, but we needn’t have worried.
We got lost. We had a phone number, but lacked a phone that will work up here. We came back down and stopped back in on Roy Hamilton at the Granite County Medical Center nursing home, where we’d visited him this morning.
Hamilton, 96, let me borrow a book on area mines. I needed to give it back before we skipped town. He was a thinking-man’s miner who worked as a metallurgist and engineer in the mines. Helped spearhead construction of local mills.
He graduated high school in 1935 and went to work in the mines. He attended the School of Mines in Butte.
His dad, Andy Hamilton, was a carpenter from Sweden. His mother died when he was 4. She succumbed to the flu in the tail-end of the pandemic that ravaged the world in the years following World War I.
Now, just like that, it’s 92 years hence. Life is like that.
If you want to appreciate the prosaic horror life might have in store, just visit a nursing home sometime.
I tapped on his door. Come in, he beckoned.
Turns out he was expecting a nurse. He sat on his bed,in his underwear, colostomy bag at his hip. A nurse was due to change it.
… You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.
Richard Hugo “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”
Yesterday we spent a couple hours visiting with Davey “Wild Meat” Harris up in Tower, aka Stumptown.
A photograph of Granite, depicting a boisterous scene during Union Miners Day in 1903, hangs in his cabin. A sign for Walker Commercial Company, a general merchandise store along Granite’s main drag, is prominent in the shot.
The Walker Co., Wild Meat said, moved down to Philipsburg around 1905 and set up operations at 109 E. Broadway, right “where that goddamn candy store is now.”
The Sweet Palace is the centerpiece of Shirley Beck’s Philipsburg renaissance. She is the new Philipsburg, Wild Meat the old.
Between them stretches a chasm as wide as the Mississippi River.
I asked Wild Meat, if in his mind, The Sweet Palace represents all that is wrong with modern Philipsburg.
“I never thought about it,” he says. “But, yeah, I guess you could say that.”
I thanked Roy for the book and wished him well. Next we stopped at the Doe Brothers parlor for ice cream. Chuck said he wanted to run across Broadway and pay his respects to Shirley Beck at the Sapphire Gallery before leaving town.
We tagged along, but after yesterday’s mining bonanza, I was feeling lazy and not in the mood to hear another side of the story.
Tell you this about Shirley Beck: She can change a person’s mind. We stood languidly at the jewelry counter, unaware we are about to be descended upon by a five-foot-tall blur of kinetic energy.
Richard Hugo never had the chance to meet Shirley Beck. Had he been dazzled by the whirlwind of her personality, he might have struggled to write his famous poem about gray Philipsburg.
Nowadays if you come into town on a Sunday, you’re probably here to buy fudge or taffy or sapphires. This is largely because of Shirley Beck. She is a Main Street evangelist, a a one-woman Chamber of Commerce buzz-saw.
Energy pours from her like water gushing from an open main. And in the past two decades Beck, in association with partner Dale Siegford, has carved a retail empire on the streets of nowhere.
That goddamn candy store, aka The Sweet Palace, debuted in 1998, five years after Sapphire Gallery opened its doors. When she told Jerry Sullivan, president of Granite Mountain Bank, that she wanted to open a candy store, he said “Shirley, what are you on?”
He objected, saying people wouldn’t drive a half hour just to buy candy. She insisted they would. I imagine she’s difficult to deter when she gets to insisting. You get the feeling she could make a millionaire entrepreneur out of a homeless junkie.
It didn’t always seem like she was a born entrepreneur. Shirley Beck was a rancher’s wife and a special-ed teacher. She’s 65 but exudes the energy of a 25-year-old.
She was one of eight children in a combined family. Only three children went on vacation at any one time.
“When you got to go on vacation, you got to spend your own money from your allowance or from your job anywhere you want, and nothing was said about it,” she says. “Because when they’ve already left home – you think about it, when you’re home, you eat your broccoli and you eat your stuff you’re cooking for breakfast and you drink your cranberry juice or whatever you do,” she says. “But when you go away, you’re buying coffee in the afternoon and you’re doing things you don’t do. We treat ourselves when we’re out, and we don’t act the same way as we do when we’re in our routine at home. And everybody who comes to Philipsburg leaves home. In a way. Because we’re nowhere. So it’s just how much nowhere we can get ’em to spend.”
Nowadays they’re spending bank vaults full of nowhere down on Broadway.
Her mouth struggles to keep pace with her frenetic synapses. Her sentences start, they don’t really stop they just get run over by other sentences. Ultimately, and quickly, the thought gets expressed.
Where does it all come from? She says it’s genetic. Her dad, Knute Borglum, was a top executive with Herberger’s department store. He bought out a bunch of stores in St. Paul, Minn., and opened them in eastern South Dakota. Then he retired and became a Baptist minister.
So faith and salesmanship run in the family, too.
“Oh, my gosh,” she says. “I remember chasing him to the fourth floor and back again and not being able to catch him. My dad was known for boundless energy and always being able to pull it out of his socks to make something else happen.”
Sullivan was out of town when opportunity knocked.
“The man who owned the hardware store said, ‘I’m going to close it. I’ll drop the price $30,000 if you can come up with 30 for a down payment. I’ll move my stuff across the street.’
“And so Dale and I bought the building on credit cards and had a business plan. Jerry came back and was just beside himself. And he backed us. We opened that without a dime. We didn’t have a dime. We did all the renovation for half a million dollars. We did it all. We opened that one in 1998. We started Halloween 1997 and we opened Mother’s Day 1998.”
She has three kids of her own. Her son is an architect in Denver. Her two daughters are part of her Philipsburg empire.
When they couldn’t make candy fast enough to meet the burgeoning demand, they bought an entire candy company in Salt Lake City. Before the sale was final, she dispatched her daughter, Heidi, to learn the business from the 88-year-old proprietor during an intensive, year-long internship.
“She’s now head confectioner,” Beck says. “She’s the one that went to school for business. She’s the cook, and the one that went to school to be a chef (Holly) is in here selling jewelry.”
But first came the Sapphire Gallery, which opened in Dec. 12, 1992.
“It took us three years when we signed that first $50,000 loan,” she says. “I don’t think I slept for two weeks. Now we have sales bigger than that.”
If this gallery was her foothold in town, she traces the story all the way back to Nov. 1, 1979, the day she first visited Philipsburg.
You can ask her about her first flirtation with Philipsburg, but you better be prepared for the fusillade of words that’s sure to follow. She’s liable to shift gears at high speed and swerve left or right and throw it into reverse and spin 180 degrees and then regain her bearings and tear off again in a forward direction at 100 mph.
“It was a gray day and there were clouds and it was rainy,” she begins. “We drive in and all these buildings are standing here and there in this great spot. The mountain rises right here, and you have to look up to see the sky. Will you look at these buildings. What in the world went on in this town? In the mining museum was the Overland Car dealership, and before 1910 they sold Overland cars for $1,900. They had ’em sitting in there. What was going on here? So much money.
“To me it was like the buildings were reaching out or were calling, ‘Isn’t anybody going to see what we have to offer?’ When you have a town, it seems to me, that is founded on things like extraction that draws all your risk-takers and when that kind of thing is gone, your risk-takers are off to the next risk. They are just by virtue of personality and money and how fast they can make it and what they can make it, they’re off. So there were people here who were dead broke. We didn’t have anything. There were people here with so much more money and so much more understanding of the history, but the risk-takers were gone. And they could no longer see what could happen. And so you know, a little vision goes a long way.”
The way she sees it, the principal divide in town runs north and south across Broadway. All the bars have always been on the north side of the street, the churches on the south.
After 10 minutes with Shirley Beck, your head swims with a kaleidoscopic parade of facts and anecdotes and tumbling asides. Streetlights. Trees. Low-interest loans.
Speaking of loans, in 1994 she got behind Sullivan’s plot to erect streetlights along Broadway. He fronted her a loan, and she turned around and sold streetlights to old mining families who agreed to donate $5,000 per streetlight as Mother’s Day tributes for the town’s dowager matriarchs.
Even when the tributes were sold and the money was in hand, the streetlight operation threatened to turn into a fiasco.
Her description of that drama is typically breathless:
“Jerry and Dale, my business partner, they went and got somebody to break up the concrete. Jerry the banker drove to Helena and got the saw. Dale hooked it up and the two of them are going down, sawing the concrete to make room for it …
“Dale welded all the cages that go down in the sonic tubes. And we went out there and got the guys coming with the front-end loaders to put up the lights.”
First came the heavy rain, which turned the dirt to muck. Then barber Doug Morrison, who has since become a Beck ally, offered an 11th-hour objection.
“We happened to be putting them up when it was raining,” she says. “And now you know when you can’t get out when that grabs you. Because I got in one and I’m digging I got in above my knee and they had to pull me out. So we’re doing this and Doug Morrison comes out and he says I don’t know who you think you are or what you think you’re doing. There were never streetlights in here. He starts kicking the sonic tube down the hill. So the banker’s got to run after it now. He’s mad. Oh, my gosh. Furious.
“And you know what we found while we were digging? All the cables for the original streetlights that we now have pictures of. There were no pictures because nobody gave a care. Nobody cared.”
Next came Gem Mountain Sapphire in 1995. Customers purchase buckets of gravel and mine for sapphires.
Then The Sweet Palace. Now the empire includes a gym, apartments. It didn’t come easy, Beck says.
“Nobody came into town,” she says. “I had to drag in all this business in here from all over the world. We don’t take business from people. All we do is pick up these balls that keep dropping.”
She’s a little scarred by the opposition she ran up against in the early days. She’s not above taking a swing or two at the people she sees as being stuck in the past, mired in the Philipsburg of Hugo’s poem.
She says the Philipsburg Brewing Company, which opened for business in August of 2012, is a “knockout.” As for the Club and the White Front, she wouldn’t mind knocking them out of town altogether.
“The brewery is wonderful because it brings a whole different sort of people here,” she says. “It’s good for the community because I will go over there on Friday night or Thursday when they’re doing something special like a fundraiser and drink some beer with people and everybody that’s there has something in their head above here (points at her nose).
“That’s not the case across the street. I’ve never gone and had a business drink with anybody in the Club or the White Front, because I can’t tolerate the same thing being said eight times over and over again or falling off a bar stool.”
Then in 1999, she was given an opportunity to buy a sprawling mansion on the western edge of town, a 10,000-square-foot dinosaur owned the Grand Dame of the Taylor-Knapp mining colossus.
Sullivan was nervous, but she talked him into taking a tour. Typically, he was sold by her vision. He has been every step of the way.
“We’ve been up to $1.7 million in debt, but it’s all gone,” she says. “We’ve had seven SBA loans. They’re all gone. There’s just nothing like this bank up here to get somebody who’ll just keep working.”
She rhapsodizes about the Victorian grandness of the Knapp mansion. It is a symbol of her vision for an all-new Philipsburg.
“When I walk into the first part there’s this big arch,” she says. “When I go into the rest it makes me think of the palisades at the Biltmore. Mrs. Knapp says, ‘I danced there, Shirley.’
“That’s the kind of money that was here. That’s what these walls talk about. It’s, ‘we were here and we were grand and we were helping this country shove itself up from nowhere. And now it’s time for us to dress up like a French pastry and be beautiful. That’s what I see.”