Philipsburg Brewing Company on the corner of 101 W. Broadway, boasts a restored metal front. Drone photo credit: Jordan Lefler. Documentary still shot. 

Sweeping Film Charms, Captures P-Burg Renaissance

Residents and cast snagged sneak peeks of filmmaker Jim Jenner’s seamless, professional documentary highlighting the astounding genesis of teensy-weensy Philipsburg, Montana earlier this year in their beloved little town.

Finally, this week “Saving the Burg: A Story of Love, Sweat and Beers” debuts on Montana PBS Thursday, April 18 for the general public. More air dates follow on April 21 and 22.

“Saving the Burg” portrays the astounding, steady, chronological transformation of Philipsburg – or “P-Burg,” as locals and Montanans call it for short – from a dusty, dried-up mining town of old to a thriving, enticing current-day phoenix that draws tourists hungry for a simple return to small-town life. Even quick weekend visits restore the soul.

Shirley Beck, Sweet Palace and Sapphire Gallery business owner, zones in on the allure and charm of a town brought back to life. Thanks to her, Dale Siegford and at least 17 other business owners, volunteers and sundry townspeople whose consistent effort, teamwork and uncommonly common vision transformed the historic silver mining town into an architectural showpiece – complete with a brewery, a well-known candy shop, an annual concert in a gorgeous outdoor amphitheater that doubles as a pro-size hockey rink in the winter – and so much more.

Sweet Palace, planked right in the center of town at 109 E. Broadway, serves as the appropriate metaphor for cleverly turning lemons – a forgotten old mining town tucked away into Flint Creek Valley and located off the beaten path – into lemonade in the form of architectural restoration and rebirth.

“Did you see the movie, Chocolat? asks savvy Beck in the P-Burg film. “Do you know how that changed that town? That’s what it did (here). People friended each other for no other reason than we have a candy store. We have something that nobody else has. It was a glowing pink thing that just – Poof! – changed the town, just like Chocolat.

Beck, Siegford and a slew of other dedicated P-Burgites responsible for rebuilding the town, founded in 1867, star in Jenner’s chronological film that schools even the most ardent Montana historian.

Broken into aptly-named episodes, the film gives a thorough overview of the mining town’s boom, it’s eventual demise and ghost-town like ambiance. Jenner pays due homage to Montana’s preeminent late poet, Richard Hugo, whose poem, Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg, put the town on the map and in the wider public consciousness leading up to the town’s eventual Renaissance a few decades later. Jenner, a master filmmaker who bought a house in P-Burg in 1991, then moved there permanently in 2003, even includes old 16-millimeter footage of Hugo touring the drab and dreary crumbling town. Read Hugo’s poem here that inspired so many students to write their own “place” poems.

Eventually, a 1987 University of Montana School of Journalism project chronicling a-day-in-the-life photos proved key to attracting the curious, including several former Washington state residents who drove through, caught the P-Burg charm bug, then set down new roots. Many former  Washingtonians, plus local volunteer labor, bankers and home-town returnees comprise the core team that consistently, doggedly pumped money and sweat equity into restoring several architectural gems and opened hip businesses that reflect P-Burg today. They spied the economic possibilities and jumped on them, says Jenner, at heart a fisherman drawn to Montana’s clear streams and rivers.

“There’s kind of an infinity for people who live on the coast to come to the mountains,” said Jenner, who moved from Olympia. “This is kind of a less populated, less frenetic place.”

A $12,500 Greater Montana Foundation grant, plus local matching funds from generous donors, partly paid for the film production. National press in a few magazines and a few prestigious community awards boosted the town’s image and spread the word – rare, indelible ink for isolated, rural Montana.

So much more surrounds the decades-long P-Burg Renaissance. For a complete picture, absorb with awe Jenner’s thorough film that includes perspectives from all angles, including young P-Burg natives who stayed to participate in the revival or who eventually returned to raise their young families in a quiet but thriving burg.

“Now we just have to keep the momentum going,” added Jenner.

The documentary airs on https://www.pbs.org/show/saving-burg/ at the following times: April 18 – 7 p.m.; April 21 – 10 a.m. April 22 – 2 a.m.

Two years in the making, “Saving the Burg: A Story of Love, Sweat & Beers” is available at local Philipsburg retailers and online at www.paccomfilms.com for $20. Proceeds from DVD sales benefit the Philipsburg Arts Fund.

— Renata Birkenbuel, editor@prairiepopulist.org. Photos by Jim Jenner and Anne Pentilla

Updated on April 18.

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