Time and again I find entire towns confronting problems with patience, love and a leveling sense of humor. One of them nestles in a high mountain valley, far from the rest of us, where people survive — even in hard times — without federal aid or giant corporations.
Philipsburg, Montana, is a working-class town that gets things done the pioneer way — together. Jim Jenner paused on Main Street to explain.
“They’re tough people,” he said of his fellow citizens. “This is tough country. Tough jobs, like mining and cattle. But they believed in the future.”
Philipsburg has always attracted people with intensity and drive. Its pioneers beat everyone to Montana’s first silver mine, and then built 30 houses in 30 days. They clung to their town, even when the mines boomed and busted, jobs came and went, dreams soared and shattered.
How else could a city of 900 build its own opera house, or produce two original plays each year? Performers get costumes at the local thrift shop, where their neighbors sell hand-me-down clothing and housewares. The money they make — more than $1 million — helps run the town’s hospital.
‘The last best place’
People in Philipsburg guard the things that make it a community. The Post Office is the one place where folks can check on each other every day, so when the federal government tried to move Philipsburg’s post office, Judy Paige led a successful fight to keep it downtown. “We were afraid that this place was going to become another ghost town,” she said, “like the 29 towns nearby that have already disappeared.”
Fewer than two people per mile live in the valley. Only about 100 kids go to Philipsburg’s elementary school, yet superintendent Mike Cutler points out that people taxed themselves a bunch to restore it: an average of $2500 per person.
Students are learning how to pay that back. The high school shop class built a bathroom for the volunteer fire department. Local hunters paid for the project. “This is what we do,” Cutler said, “and if it’s not good enough, we’ll make it good enough.”
We watched the kids work through a haze of sawdust. Outside the sun was slanting behind high purple mountains. It was one of those moments that make you homesick for a place you’ve just seen. Granite County, Montana is bedrock America — filled with the kind of people that built this country.
“It’s the last best place,” Cutler said. “It truly is. It has to survive.”
‘People support each other’
In 2003, Mike Cutler was diagnosed with cancer — leukemia — and needed a costly stem cell transplant. “One day I came back from a golf tournament and here’s this great big tent, you know? Like you see at the circuses.” Mike’s eyes grew moist with memory. “I could not believe the amount of people.”
People all over the valley donated meals, and nearly everybody showed up to buy them. They handed him a check. “Close to $40,000,” Cutler said.
All that money for Mike Cutler was raised in one day. He pondered that amazing achievement. Finally, a soft smile warmed his face. “It takes a community to keep the community.”
There are fewer than 1,000 people living in or around Philipsburg. “It was overwhelming for me,” Cutler said. “Still is.”
“The folks who helped, were they all just rich?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he chuckled. “No, no, no.”
They simply valued the town’s survival more than personal gain. “It’s tough around here,” Cutler sighed, “just like it is anywhere else in this country. But people support each other.”
A few years later, in the depths of a recession, the neighbors rallied again. This time the handful of folks in Granite County raised another bundle of cash to save the Cutler family — $100,000. Mike’s 9-year-old daughter Sydney needed surgery for brain cancer.
Cutler’s voice choked with emotion: “It’s way easier being the patient than the parent of a little girl that’s fighting for her life.”
After an operation in Seattle, Sydney had to learn to how to walk again. “I had to learn how to see again too,” she added.
Fortunately, she lived in a place that nourished hope. “People helped me so much,” she said. “If I couldn’t do stuff, my friends didn’t care; they just stuck right with me. They didn’t go away and do things I couldn’t do.”
‘We saved ourselves’
The Cutlers live on a hilltop ranch just outside of town. Neighbors took care of their animals for months at a time while Sydney was undergoing cancer treatments far from home. After each trip, Mike’s wife, Jody, found new groceries in their fridge. “Not just food, but casseroles that I would just have to warm up.”
How could a county with more cows than people come up with a hundred grand in the midst of a recession? Ranch manager Phil Shields said, “They gave from their hearts and they gave from their souls.”
More than that: Neighbors donated things others needed to buy anyway. Shields put a cattle chute up for auction. It wasn’t offered just out of the goodness of his heart.
“Most of us figured if there was no town, there’d be no people. So we saved ourselves, is what we did.”
Philipsburg reminds us of America as it used to be, when comfort came with a whiff of river water and the bite of a trout. I stood on a hillside overlooking the town, watching Mike and Sydney herd horses in the frozen pasture below. Sydney’s hair had grown back; Mike’s was prematurely gray. But they had won their battles with cancer.
Lights winked on in the town as shadows began to blanket the beautiful Victorian buildings lining Main Street. A single shaft of sunlight remained, illuminating antique words on an old brick wall — a fading advertisement for “The Golden Rule.”
There are still places in this country that call us together, where we feel connected to shared landscape and experience. But it’s not just the love of old buildings that draws people close in Philipsburg.
“What you see when you drive downtown isn’t what you get,” Mike said. “The candy store is great and all the buildings are beautiful, but spend a day and visit with some of the people —that’s what it’s all about.”
The people who saved Mike Cutler’s family, like they saved their town.
To contact the subjects of this American Story:
Philipsburg School District #1
P.O. Box 400
Philipsburg, MT 59858
Ranch at Rock Creek
79 Carriage House Lane
Philipsburg, MT 59858
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