WIBAUX — In the Gem Theatre attached to the Beaver Creek Brewery, Mighty Big Jim and the Tall Boys took the stage a little after 8 Saturday night.
Their opening song was “Wibaux, MT,” a defiant anthem written by bandleader Jim Devine. The chorus opens with “We’re Wibaux, Montana/Who the hell are you/We like our sky big/We like to throw down a few.”
The crowd, numbering about 35 on this cold, windy night on the prairie, was settling in, and there was some cheering when Devine started the second verse: “We brew our own beer/On Beaver Creek/Yeah it’s strong/It ain’t made for the weak.”
The use of “we” is not just a figure of speech. Besides being a guitar player and bandleader, Devine is a brewer and co-owner of Beaver Creek Brewery and the Gem, as well as the master of ceremonies for this unexpected constellation of good food, good beer and high spirits on the eastern edge of Montana.
One of Devine’s partners, Sandon Stinnett, said the brewery and theater regularly draw in people from Glendive, his home town, as well as Baker and Ekalaka, and from Beach, Williston and Dickinson, N.D.
“We’ll get big groups of people that drive in from Minot,” he said, which is nearly a 500-mile round trip.
When he was growing up in Glendive, Stinnett said, Wibaux had a reputation as a party town, the little burg where people from neighboring towns and ranches went to get rowdy, especially on Sunday dance night. It was also known for its steaks.
As Devine put it, “They always say, the best steakhouse in Glendive is in Wibaux. The best steakhouse in Baker is in Wibaux.”
It’s still known for its steaks, at the Shamrock Club and the Rainbow Club, both a stone’s throw from Beaver Creek Brewery on Wibaux’s short but handsome main street. But what brings people to the brewery and theater is not just the prospect of a party, or even the good food and beer. It’s also the ambience, something in the air.
Steve Santini is one regular, though he lives in Bismarck, N.D., 170 miles to the east. He and his wife, Dana, and 2-year-old son, Christian, had some chores to do in Dickinson on Saturday, and Dana had never been to the brewery before. So Steve talked her into driving the extra 60 miles into Wibaux, where they had a couple of beers and filled a few growlers.
Steve works for Allied Van Lines and often spends the night in Dickinson, he said, and “anytime I don’t have anything to do at night, I make the extra 120-mile round trip.” It’s not for nothing that Beaver Creek Brewery bills itself as “a microbrew oasis on the vast plains of Eastern Montana.”
They farm in the summer, when it’s hard to get away, he said, but the rest of the year they drive over to the brewery pretty often. “In the winter, every weekend,” he said.
Beaver Creek Brewery started with Devine and Stinnett’s mutual passion for making beer at home. They were both social workers and met on the job at Home on the Range, a youth home in Sentinel Butte, N.D. They started brewing together in 1996 and soon formed a group in Glendive known as the Beaver Creek Brewers. (They don’t remember how it was named; Beaver Creek runs through Wibaux.)
There was a lot of enthusiasm at first, Devine said, “but after a few years it was me, Sandy and one other guy.”
Stinnett and Devine became good brewers, so good that friends and relatives were always asking them to brew up a batch for a wedding, a birthday party, a branding or some other occasion. They couldn’t charge for their beer, but they did ask the recipients of their skills to pay for ingredients.
“It got to the point where Jim and I were brewing several times a week,” Stinnett said.
Late in 2006, they started talking about opening a brewery. They figured it would be in Glendive, but they ended up in the old Helvik’s Grocery store in Wibaux for two reasons: “The walk-in cooler was functional and the owner of the building became our partner,” Devine said.
That would be Russell Houck, a rancher, oilman and Wibaux native who also funded most of the renovation of the building. The building went up in 1914 and had also housed a butcher shop and a shoe store over the years. As usually happens with an old building, there were lots of surprises, and lots of work.
“It took us 18 months from when we started tearing shit up in here to pouring our first beer,” Devine said. The result, in the summer of 2008, was an inviting, surprisingly spacious building with 16-foot-high ceilings, full of antiques, lamp-lighting and the stuffed head of a longhorn steer next to the chalkboard with the beer menu.
“My wife gets all the credit for the interior design,” Devine said.
During their first full year, they produced 279 barrels of beer. “We’ll surpass 900 barrels this year,” Stinnett said. That’s almost 28,000 gallons, nearly a quarter million pints. They sell about 30 percent of their beer straight out of the tap. The other 70 percent is sold to bars, taverns and restaurants from Billings to Bismarck and as far north as Williston. Four different distributors take their beer on the road.
Within two years, the partners had opened a patio on one side of the brewery, then added a raised deck to the patio. Even in those days they put on three live music shows a year, which meant clearing the brewery of tables and chairs and setting up a temporary stage in one corner.
A few years ago they found out there was a beer-and-wine license available in Wibaux. The partners couldn’t own it because they already had a brewery, so Devine’s wife’s brother “agreed to own the paperwork.”
That paved the way for the expansion into the vacant building next door—the old Gem Theatre, which opened in 1915. Another top-to-bottom renovation took place, this one resulting in a restaurant-music venue with a big stage at one end and at the other a tiny galley kitchen and a wine-and-beer bar.
The brewery is open Thursday-Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m., and the Gem is open from 4 to 11. That means brewery patrons, by state law, can drink only three pints apiece … then move over to the Gem and drink what they please, as at any other bar.
Upstairs, in the old theater projection room, they built an office out of which they run both businesses, plus a little three-table loge for VIP concert seating. Devine’s wife, Sandra, started out serving $5 plates of pub specials. That didn’t generate much business so she developed a larger menu, with specialty pizzas, fancy pub food and nightly specials.
In the early years, Stinnett said, business went great guns until New Year’s Eve and then dropped off steeply until spring. Now, with the Gem serving meals four nights a week, business is steady all year long.
Sandra Devine doesn’t fry anything. All her dishes are baked in the oven or cooked in a crock pot. She also bakes chocolate chip cookies, one of which is served for free with each pint of stout.
“People say all the time, ‘the beer is good, but I really like the cookies,’” Sandra said. “It makes Jim grumpy.”
Maybe, but he’s also her biggest booster.
“She’s doing a bacon-wrapped meatloaf that’s getting kind of famous,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how the food comes in. She just sprinkles some Sandra dust on it and it’s awesome.”
Some people might say the same about the beer. Devine mostly runs the businesses these days and Stinnett does all the brewing. There are six regular beers on tap, the most popular of which is the Rusty Beaver Wheat. Others include Paddlefish Stout and Wibaux Gold. There are usually a few special beers on tap, too. One of them Saturday was the Pipeliner Porter.
The brewery was nearly full all Saturday evening, and 30 to 35 people paid $10 to hear Devine’s band at 8. This was only their second gig as a band, but Devine has been playing music for decades. He went to Nashville twice a year for 12 years, starting in 1994, writing songs, doing some recordings, playing guitar in various bands.
These days he’s happy to be able to play music and still run a successful business. He clearly enjoys himself on stage, trading banter with the people in his band as much with the familiar crowd in the Gem. There were lots of references to beer-drinking, and possibly an overabundance of beaver jokes, but we’ll let that go.
Lately, Devine’s been thinking he ought to be using his music more to promote the brewery. That’s why, next Wednesday he and his lead guitar player, Casey Malkuch, will be playing the Montana Bar in Miles City and talking up Beaver Creek’s beers.
If you’re wondering about that band name, Mighty Big Jim and the Tall Boys, they came by it honestly. Devine stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 280 pounds. And on Saturday, Big Jim had some big news for his audience.
The Wibaux Longhorns had won their playoff game against Ennis earlier in the day, which means they’ll be playing Chinook for the Class C Eight-Man State Championship in Wibaux this Saturday. That’s at 1 p.m., and the Cat-Grizzly game gets underway in Missoula at 3:10.
Stockman Bank is sponsoring a tailgate party starting at 11 a.m. and the brewery will open an hour early, at 3, for the Cat-Grizzly game. And at 8, the Social Animals, an alternative country band from Minnesota, takes the stage at the Gem.
It sounds like Wibaux, population 450, might be the hottest ticket in all of Montana this Saturday.
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And here are some more photos:
Ed Kemmick/Last Best News permalink
Dancers pack the floor during a performance by Mighty Big Jim and the Tall Boys.