Saturday, April 01, 2023

Lessons come over water, wood

by Margaret E. Davis
| October 9, 2022 12:00 AM

"You look like you need to go to the hot pool," the woman said as she bobbed toward me. She beamed a smile, her face edged in white curls.

I was lounging in one of the bigger pools at the Spa Hot Springs Motel and quietly mulling the experience. It was pleasant, yes. But not hot.

She smiled and pointed to the far end of the pool area. Having left my glasses in my room, I could only see a white rectangle where the words were, on closer inspection, "Hot Pool." Beneath it was a door to the real deal.

How I love to get in hot water.

The long weekend, off to a good start, just kept getting better. When taking the Women in the Woods workshop this spring in Kalispell, I heard about similar courses put on by the Red Ants Pants Foundation in White Sulphur Springs. I signed up for Carpentry 101.

Our three instructors — all accomplished Montana tradeswomen — started things off smartly for us dozen students, who ranged from all over the state and represented occupations from attorney to architect and trail builder to set decorator for the film industry. We earned our simple, but gourmet dinner — cooked by a Colombian woman who lives in Bozeman — by learning how to use a cross-cut saw.

Over the next three days we leaned into our project, making chairs. We chopped and ripped on the table and miter saws. We wielded drills and impact drivers. We sanded. Then we sanded some more.

"I love getting power tools into women's hands," instructor Anna Baker said. Later, in introducing the table saw, she advised, "Step up to the table, keep your hands on the material. A lot of what we learn here can apply to life."

We got a primer on shopping at the lumberyard, and learned about softwood, hardwood, plain-sawn and quarter-sawn. One of our instructors had driven to Belgrade to buy the cedar we cut up into nearly two dozen pieces that formed a two-part, adjustable, compact and transportable place to sit.

It wasn't all work. We competed in hammering and pulling out nails. After being told we would get extra points for style, some of my teammates cartwheeled to their hammers and cat's paws.

On our last day, Red Ants Pants founder Sarah Calhoun gave a tour of the 1887 Ringling Mansion, where she lives. Inspired by writer Ivan Doig, Calhoun moved to White Sulphur Springs to make women's workwear, an enterprise that spawned a successful music festival and the foundation that organized our workshop.

As the fourth owner of the mansion, Calhoun admired all that's intact. "Those silk damask curtains — I found them in the attic," she said. "They match perfectly." The place came with a piano, gleaming woodwork and good bones. Upstairs, Doig had written "This House of Sky."

The writer heard when Calhoun bought the place and about what she does to support rural communities. He sent her a letter saying he appreciated that she'd found his hometown and "made it perk."

As a history buff, maker, book lover and hot springs fanatic, I soaked it all up.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at

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