WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS—Reflecting on the nine years since she started Red Ants Pants, Sarah Calhoun shook her head and let out a satisfied sigh.
“It’s been a whirlwind, that’s for sure,” she said.
Whirlwind happens to be a good word to describe Calhoun, too. In addition to running a company that sells women’s workwear all over the world, she’s gearing up for the fifth annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival, which brings top country and Americana acts to a cow pasture just west of White Sulphur Springs.
The festival—it runs Thursday-Sunday this year, headlined by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ryan Bingham, Keb’ Mo’ and Lee Ann Womack—supports the Red Ants Pants Foundation, which promotes “women’s leadership, family farms and ranches, and rural communities.”
In May, Calhoun was Montana’s sole representative at a small-business summit at the White House, and in 2011 Gov. Brian Schweitzer named her Montana’s Entrepreneur of the Year. She has also been the subject of numerous articles in newspapers and magazines around the country, and she is in demand as a motivational speaker.
Did we mention she’s only 36?
“She’s a wonderful young person,” said Barry Hedrich, a native of White Sulphur Springs and the high school football coach there for the past 16 years. “We’re just awful fortunate that she decided to settle here.”
The choice was a deliberate one. Calhoun, who grew up on a farm in rural Connecticut, earned a degree in environmental studies from Gettysburg College. After working for five years in outdoor education, including a stint as an Outward Bound instructor, she followed her love for the West to Bozeman, where she spent a year. She was already thinking then of starting a women’s workwear company, motivated by a lifelong frustration with ill-fitting pants designed for men.
Documentary screenings will open festival
Two documentaries with a distinctly western bent—and dealing with very unusual “extreme” sports—will be screened in White Sulphur Springs Thursday evening, kicking off the Red Ants Pants Music Festival.
“Dryland,” directed by Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm, premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula last year and has been on a “Grass Routes Tour” of the West in recent months. It was also shown during the Red Ants Pants Music Festival last year.
Filmed over 10 years, it tells the story of a young Washington state farmer’s quest to win the Lind Combine Demolition Derby. The 62-minute documentary is full of thrilling scenes of the metal-crushing contest, but it also traces how families in Eastern Washington are working hard to preserve the legacy of their wheat farms in the face of a quickly changing world.
“Queens of the Roleo,” directed by David Bryant Jones, brings to life the story of four young girls, all from the same small town in Idaho, who won 11 log rolling world championships between 1958 and 1972.
In an encounter that has become part of Red Ants legend, she was sitting in a Bozeman coffeeshop reading a book on how to start a small business when she was approached by another customer—who happened to have years of experience as a Patagonia product designer.
His encouragement and advice—she briefly sewed backpacks when he suggested she needed some “floor” experience—gave her the final push she needed. But Bozeman, she says, “was just too big for me.” She had already read and fallen in love with Ivan Doig’s “This House of Sky,” his memoir of growing up near White Sulphur Springs, so she drove there to check it out.
A ranching community with a population a bit under 1,000, with a fine old downtown and spectacular views in every direction, it seemed to be everything Calhoun was looking for.
On her second visit to White Sulphur she saw a stately building for sale on Main Street. It was constructed in 1880 to house the Wellman Saddlery and later was the town post office. For a time, Taylor Gordon, one of White Sulphur’s more famous native sons, ran a café and laundry there with his sister. Calhoun bought the building in 2005 and launched Red Ants Pants in 2006.
It might have looked like a long shot for someone so young, with no entrepreneurial experience, but Calhoun had faith in herself and in the concept of workwear designed specifically for women, a market nobody else was serving. She also knew she had a flair for design and marketing, “not by training by any means, but just by interest.”
Those skills have paid off. Every aspect of Red Ants Pants—from the products, logos and packaging to the slogans and marketing campaigns—bears the imprint of Calhoun’s whimsical creativity and her knack for knowing what appeals to her customers.
An early campaign involved driving around the United States and Canada in a 1964 Airstream trailer, selling goods at “pants parties.” She even had a beer sponsor for the tour, Big Sky Brewing in Missoula. This year, to promote the music festival, Calhoun went on tour with a cutout silhouette of a red ant, which also appeared on billboards, with no text.
Her customers have developed such a close bond with the company that they help with promotions, too, sending in photos of themselves attired in Red Ants gear, which then are posted on the company website. Calhoun said it helps that many of their customers are seasonal workers who go from region to region or country to country, spreading the Red Ants word as they go.
“We’ve had people tell us they wear these pants into surgery because it makes them feel stronger,” she said.
People respond to the marketing, she said, but they also value the company’s authenticity.
“There’s no bullshit behind it,” she said. “People recognize that and appreciate that.”
Most of their sales are made via the Internet, but a fair number of sales are made at the shop in White Sulphur, to which some customers make a pilgrimage. The business currently has four employees, two of them full-time.
But Calhoun had a bigger vision for Red Ants from the start. She wanted to have a successful business but she also wanted to build community and help other women. That’s why she started the foundation and the music festival in 2011.
Calhoun said she is intensely involved in the festival—“all of it; every last damned detail.” Between the weather and the liability it’s an incredibly risky venture, she said, but it has made money every year and has enabled the foundation to give out $45,000 in grants to female entrepreneurs and farmer-ranchers.
The festival is staged on the ranch of Scott and Lynn Jackson, who allow Red Ants to use their property for free, though Calhoun said she makes sure they get plenty of free tickets and beer. Seventy people are on the payroll the week of the festival, aided by 220 volunteers, most of whom work on festival weekend.
The volunteers include two elderly gents who spend three solid days just filling in gopher holes. Hedrich, the football coach, said he and a few ranchers and former high school football players put up all the fencing on the festival grounds, and current football players pick up trash during the festival.
Hedrich said there were some skeptics in town when Calhoun announced the first festival, but the skepticism soon evaporated. “Now that they’ve seen it, they’re very much behind it,” he said.
The festival and the Main Street business have brought a lot of recognition and a welcome dose of commerce to the town, he said. Hedrich is hoping to do his own part for the local economy one day soon. He is opening a business, 2 Basset Brewery, in the building next door to Red Ants Pants.
That used to be the Red Ants warehouse, but Calhoun was willing to find a new warehouse if it meant helping a friend and helping Main Street. Hedrich hopes to start brewing beer by October and to have the brewpub open soon after the first of the year.
Thanks to the Red Ants Pants Foundation, Calhoun is also making a difference statewide. It’s not exactly the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she acknowledged, but for the kind of businesses and organizations the Red Ants foundation targets, the small grants mean a lot.
One of the 2105 recipients was Big Timber Meats, where a $1,500 grant will help pay for logo and packaging design for a new line of dog treats made of beef, lamb and pork offal from its slaughter plant.
Owner Lori Crowell said her business, a full-service slaughter operation and butcher shop, has seven to 10 employees, depending on the time of year.
She said she has a lot of friends who’ve been to the Red Ants festival and many friends who wear Red Ants clothing. Does she own any Red Ants gear herself?
“Not yet,” she said. “I need to go out and get some. When I get a break from the butcher shop.”
Another 2015 recipient is Women Stepping Forward for Agriculture, which puts on an annual conference to educate and empower women involved in all aspects of agriculture. Whitney Klansa, who farms with her husband and his parents near Lambert, applied for the $500 grant on behalf of the organization.
The conference used to be sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it decided to pull out last year. Klansa said she and seven other women from around the state “kind of stepped up to it and said we would take over the planning for the conference.”
The grant will help pay for the keynote speaker, Marji Guyler-Alaniz, an Iowa-based photographer and the founder of FarmHer Inc., which aims to create a new perception of farmers through photographing women in agriculture.
Klansa said she connected with Red Ants when Calhoun gave the keynote speech at an earlier Women Stepping Forward for Agriculture conference. Klansa is a Red Ants Pants wearer, but she has not yet been to the show because she’s usually harvesting grain and wrapping up haying this time of year.
“I’ve had tickets twice now, but ended up having to give them away,” she said. She is going to make it, she said, maybe this year.
“It doesn’t get any better than a party in a cow pasture,” she said.
Bonus fact about Sarah Calhoun: Although, as she said, “I didn’t know a single person in Montana when I moved here,” she discovered a family connection years later. William Everett Swift, her great-grandfather, an engineer, designed the Swift Dam near Valier in about 1911. He would later work on the Panama Canal.
Other fun things you should know about the music festival:
♦ Packing a camera? Red Ants encourages fans to post their photographs to the festival’s Facebook page.
♦ You need to leave your pets at home, but do bring your children. The children’s tent is bigger than ever this year, with lots of activities.