(Montana Press) A pack mule named Calhoun. The lone woman-owned-and-run Montana outfitter on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. A much-needed digital fire safety program set in rural Montana that eventually will go national.

Those are merely a few of the 89 innovative recipients of $100,000 in business grants the Red Ants Pants Foundation of White Sulphur Springs has awarded across the state since 2012.

“The grant program is not an incubator for business, but it’s for leadership on the ground,” said Sarah Calhoun, Red Ants Pants founder, Red Ants Pants Foundation executive director and visionary. “For the grant program, we focus on nonprofit organizations and for-profits with an educational element.”

Projecting a dedicated community-centered business model, the Foundation has awarded such programs while concurrently building a brick-and-mortar and online women’s workwear clothing business, Red Ants Pants, and an ever-popular summer music festival, the annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival in White Sulphur Springs.

Specifically, the foundation supports women’s leadership, working family farms, ranches and rural communities. Empowering small-business owners and vital, ground-breaking initiatives is in the foundation’s wheelhouse.

Prime examples are Dropstone Outfitting, a hiking-based business, which won a $4,190 grant in 2017. Another is the Garfield County Fire Foundation, a $5,000 grant recipient in 2018, making possible the creation of an internet fire safety program for teens and the community at large.

Ticket sales from the wildly popular Red Ants Pants Music Festival, located in an open field in White Sulphur Springs, comprise the entire $100,000 grant program. Donations also figure into the mix.

The boat-load of grants have provided a mission-driven boosts to community initiatives, nonprofits and businesses that seek to improve their communities, often in ways previously unimaginable.

“I love the idea that there are so many cool, worth-while projects going on across the state,” said Calhoun the business woman. “Even if it’s $1,000 for a woman in Helena to start her first wood-working business. It’s just believing in someone and helping to get their business off the ground.”

Dropstone Outfitting and a mule named Calhoun

A hiking-centric business based in Choteau, Dropstone Outfitting combines the expertise of co-owners Maggie Carr, a Montana State University graduate in range management, and Yve Bardwell, a University of Montana graduate in environmental studies and water resources.

“We’re the only outfitting business in the Bob that does exclusively foot travel,” said Carr, 32, a Choteau native. “We offer to people who like to hike, but we provide food, gear, hiking guides and transportation to and from the airport. That’s the main difference.”

Carr and Bardwell bought the Choteau-based company in 2013, but a few years later realized they needed a few bits and pieces for their growing, hike-centric business.

“That’s where Red Ants Pants came in,” said Carr. “We needed another mule, a pack saddle and some bear-resistant food containers. So we applied for that grant and we were the recipient in 2016. We ended up buying the mule in 2017. We were the first fully-granted grant at the time.”

Carr said Calhoun the mule cost $2,300, two bear-resistant food containers for $500 and a Red Ants Pants Foundation-embossed pack saddle and pad for $300. In keeping with the community collaboration mission, Dropstone Outfitting hired Sun River Saddlery of Frenchtown to stamp the saddle. Jordon and Jennifer Knudsen

The food containers are required when hiking in the mountains.

“When you travel in the Bob Marshall, it’s a Forest Service stipulation that you properly store your food so bears can’t get in them,” she said, adding that the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee certifies the containers.

Before receiving the much-needed grant, Dropstone Outfitting made do with some recyclables.

“We had some old Army ammunition boxes -- big green metal boxes to store med supplies -- that we had refitted, as the committee has certain specs to follow,” Carr said.  “We had to wrap them up and tie them to the mule.”

Dropstone may not use horses to take clients into the wilderness, but it uses mules, like Calhoun, as packers. Yes, Carr and Bardwell named the female mule after Sarah, in honor of the empowering message of community the charismatic founder, the forward-thinking foundation and RAP imparts upon the state.

Dropstone upped the fun ante, collaborating with RAP and Facebook on a name-the-mule contest. Such are the creative projects that emerge from foundation support.

“We had a naming competition through RAP,” said Carr. “’Calhoun’ was the highest name voted on … we left it in the hands of FB users.”

“I did get a chance to meet Calhoun the Mule,” said Sarah Calhoun. “I have yet to go on a trip, but I’d like to take our girls’ leadership alumni on a trip with Maggie and Yve.”

Meeting her namesake, Calhoun the business woman added, chuckling, “It was a big honor. It’s not going to get any better than that.”

Bardwell and Carr, both Northcentral Montana natives who previously worked for various guest ranches and the U.S. Forest Service, appreciate the moral and financial support the RAP Foundation grant provides.

“It's an awesome opportunity for small business,” said Bardwell, 36. “I know personally how hard it can be to come up with the capital for some small project that would help move your business along. This grant was a real shot in the arm for us. It helped us come up with the stock and the equipment to run two trips simultaneously. That amounts to some major business growth for us.”

Choteau residents in 2013, Bardwell and Carr bought High Country Adventures, the first backpacking-centric outfitting business in the country, from Bill and Polly Cunningham, now their industry mentors.

“We share a strong affinity for the Rocky Mountain Front and the ‘Bob,’ and we take pride in providing quality backcountry trips,” Bardwell writes on DropstoneOutfitting.com. “We feel fortunate that we’re able to share this landscape with others.”

A dropstone, the website defines, is a geologic term for a glacial, misplaced rock on the plains of the the Rocky Mountain West, once home to several large glaciers. Dropstones remained as glaciers receded; they are the large, stand-along boulders sitting out on the prairie.

Like the resilient dropstone, independent Montana business owners still value the boost and camaraderie every now and then.

“The Red Ants Pants grant community is a great group to be a part of,” said Bardwell. “There are some pretty amazing things going on in rural Montana led by women.”

Paying it forward is key to the Red Ants Pants Foundation’s mission, a three-pronged objective that “supports women’s leadership, working family farms and ranches, and rural communities, the three things most important to Calhoun, the company, and the Red Ants Pants Community.”

Bardwell, Carr and the Garfield County Fire Foundation are among the dozens sold solidly on the RAPF mission.

“It's a network of inspiration and support,” said Bardwell. “And as we continue to grow, it's a community we look forward to working with and helping along. Women in business rock. And they like helping each other out.”

Added Calhoun, with admiration: “With the women’s leadership element … outfitting is not an easy industry to break into.”

The 2019 Red Ants Pants Music Festival is set for July 25-28. (Redantspants.com)
The 2019 Red Ants Pants Music Festival is set for July 25-28. (Redantspants.com)

Community fire safety programThe Garfield County Fire Foundation, based in Jordan, won the biggest RAPF grant to date, $5,000 in 2018, to develop an online fire-safety and awareness curriculum, the Teen Fire Safety Online Program.

After recent wildfires, the Jordan community needed early-suppression fire equipment and an educational curriculum targeting ranch-raised teenagers, who often drive support vehicles alongside adults operating fire-suppression equipment during a crisis.

“The connection between the Garfield County Fire Foundation and RAP happened after the 2017 Lodgepole fire,” said Amy Miller, disaster emergency services deputy and volunteer firefighter with husband, fire department Engine Supervisor Eric Miller. They live in Jordan, located about an hour east of Lewistown on Montana Highway 87 – rural and nearly smack dab in the northcentral part of the state.

Following the wildfires, Jordan and Garfield County parents expressed a need for teens to learn wildfire safety skills, such as helping an adult drive fuel and water trucks to firefighters on the front lines and babysitting younger siblings while adults fight fires encroaching on private land.

“In all situations, we want to make sure kids have the ability to make logical decisions they can fall back on,” said Miller, comparing it to a basic, practiced home fire drill among family members.”

The Garfield County Fire Foundation seeks to secure early-suppression fire equipment for the county and to serve as a recovery agent while mitigating the negative impacts of wildfire on the community.

“We will develop a curriculum so agricultural and vocational-ag teachers across the United States, parents and small communities can use it,” said Miller. “Experts in fire safety will break down the principles and make (the program) very kid-friendly.”

The 5-course series will apply videos, personal testimonies and written materials to develop awareness of fire behavior, educate others on what to do if a piece of farm equipment bursts into fire and demonstrate how to work with firefighters and others. Ideally, the lessons will incorporate into science, math, FFA, 4-H and other courses for students in grades 7 through 12. The lessons will enhance community fire awareness for all ages, too.

“This is something very unique,” said content creator Geremy Olson of 241ink Productions, a public information officer for the Montana Department of National Resources and a volunteer firefighter based in Washburn, N.D.

“It’s probably something not even possible five years ago,” added Olson. “With technology, we can share information across the country. The whole purpose of this program is to help people make wise decisions and to give them the facts to help prevent fires.”

The target date for the video modules program to plan to launch the Teen Fire Safety Online Program by June 2019, said Christine Weder, Garfield County disaster recovery outreach coordinator.

The versatile curriculum and design are in the research phase, but the educational potential is ground-breaking in delivering fire safety to an increasingly wider audience.

“We are defining five classes and content for those classes will work its way into a multi-media project,” said Olson. “The videos are just one small part of the project.

“When it’s all set and done, the video portion can be used as a stand-alone class, but a high school ag teacher or a volunteer fire department can use the resources to teach the class, also.”

The multi-week or stand-alone curricula are meant to train folks to train other people, added Olson, who created a similar fire education program in North Dakota.

Ideally, a high school science teacher, an ag teacher or volunteer firefighters across the nation will be able to teach real-life, hands-on lessons and fire awareness from the program.

“The target audience is high school students and the secondary audience is anyone who lives in rural communities across the nation,” he added. “Garfield County folks are really progressive in making this project happen. If they are taking the time and effort to do this happen, it will be national.”

Weder said the first five lessons will cover fire behavior, benefits of fire, wildfire and your yard, equipment and working with firefighters.

While the grant covers the full cost of the initial lessons, additional costs are to be determined.

“We estimate that with additional donations, grants and matching funds, we should be able to cover the balance, enhance and expand the lessons, as well as keep the online training current and running,” added Weder.

Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan are among the performers who've attended the Red Ants Pants Music Festival. (Redantspants.com)
Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan are among the performers who've attended the Red Ants Pants Music Festival. (Redantspants.com)

Red Ants Pants Foundation beefs up its grant history

Calhoun and her foundation board live up to its mission in generous fashion, granting an average of 12 awards per year to expand and buy much-needed resources.

Overall, the foundation has awarded 10 grants in 2012, 15 in 2013, 13 in 2014, 14 in 2015, 16 in 2016, 13 in 2017 and 8 in 2018. For a list of all grant recipients from 2012 to 2018, see www.redantspantsfoundation.org/grants/

The board next meets in January to finalize plans for the next grant cycle, said Calhoun. Contact for more information: www.redantspantsfoundation.org

Other innovative Red Ants Pants programs

Besides the annual grant-giving program, Red Ants Pants Foundation is an umbrella organization for other programs that intrinsically tie into its multi-level mission.

In October, the foundation unveiled a free, inaugural, year-long Girls Leadership Program for Montana girls entering their junior year of high school. With one of three retreats already in the books, program facilitators help participants “inspire hope in our youth, develop pride in our rural communities and foster strength and courage in our leadership,” according to the program description online.

“The first retreat two weekends ago went so beautifully and beyond our expectations,” Calhoun said. “The girls are now working with mentors one-on-one.”

The purpose is to increase girls’ leadership competency and confidence and to create positive social change and positive community impact.

“We had a phenomenal response and loads of applications, from Dillon to Ennis to Browning,” she added. Eventually, she hopes to expand the program to regional applicants.

    “One-hundred percent of the grant program money is awarded to external entities,” said Calhoun. “We have separate line items in our general operating budget for the girls’ leadership program.”

Girls engage in three webinars throughout the year and each will plan a community project in their respective communities. Each is matched with a mentor who will offer developmental support and coaching throughout the program.

A diverse, “highly experienced” facilitation team of women from across Montana with a broad range of professional backgrounds serve as mentors. For more information, contact Calhoun at infor@redantspantsfoundation.org.

Another innovative program is a three-day Timber Skills Workshop designed to empower and educate women of all skill levels on the basic understanding, maintenance and operation of hand and power tools. Participants 18-years-old and older can choose either Chainsaw 101, designed for beginner-to-intermediate chainsaw users or a Carpentry 101, designed to teach essential hand and power tool usage in general carpentry.

Safety is the focus of the weekend, ensuring all participants feel comfortable and empowered to learn and practice at their own pace,” reads the course descriptions. See the www.redantspantsfoundation.org for more information.

    Overall, the RAP Foundation wraps its heart and brains around the following values:

  • Recognizing and cultivating a strong work ethic
  • Encouraging and building self-reliance, especially for women
  • Educating the public on the importance of maintaining traditional work skills
  • Providing opportunities for people with different perspectives to connect, build bridges and discover common ground.

Perhaps the most exciting gig of all is the annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival, which has boasted many top-notch, high-profile women artists that include Wynona Judd, Brandi Carlile, Lee Ann Womack, Lucinda Williams, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, Holly Williams, Dar Williams, Red Molly and many more “notable female starts who have graced the cow pasture stage,” said Weber.

This story initially appeared in the Montana Press.