Visiting The Sweet Palace in downtown Philipsburg during summer months is a given. If I make the trip to the picturesque former mining town of just under 1,000 residents between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you can bet I’m stopping in for a Grizzly Paw (a 2 1/2-inch “paw” of hand-made vanilla caramel dipped in either milk or semi-sweet chocolate with split cashew “claws” and almond crunch and white chocolate “grizzle” swirled on top).
But in winter? I wasn’t even certain it would be open.
To my delight, while researching things to do in Philipsburg in advance of a recent three-day weekend ski trip to Discovery Ski Area with five Livingston families, I learned The Sweet Palace is indeed open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and on Sundays from Sept. 1–May 31. (As in summer, it is closed on Saturdays.)
I may not win a parenting award for admitting this, but I find that dangling a shimmering golden carrot of a “special treat” in front of my kids (i.e. a trip to Montana’s finest destination candy shop) brings out their very best behavior when traveling. “You’re on the Pintler Scenic Route, for goodness sake! If you don’t LOOK OUT THE WINDOW and stop asking for that iPad, you won’t be visiting The Sweet Palace.”
At the very least, it’s one heck of a bargaining chip.
Housed in a Victorian-era hardware store, antique display bins that once held nails and drill bits now overflow with cinnamon sticks, jaw breakers, hand puppets and more than 900 types of hard candy. A taffy puller whirls nonstop in the front window as apron-clad candy makers buzz around the kitchen whipping up homemade marshmallows, brittles, caramels, crèmes and chocolate centers for dozens of hand-dipped chocolates.
“It’s overwhelming!” exclaimed wide-eyed 11-year-old Alec Dalby of Livingston as he scanned the store.
Soon, he and the rest of our ski coat-clad crew were sampling saltwater taffy (they make 72 flavors in-house) and fudge (their commercial kitchen whips up 50 flavors and offers a viewing area where curious shoppers can watch) and dipping old-fashioned grain scoops into brass buckets and candy jars brimming with penny candy.
“We offer customers taffy as they come in and fudge as they go out,” said a smiling Dale Siegford, who opened The Sweet Palace with business partner Shirley Beck in 1998. The two had launched the successful Sapphire Gallery next door in 1992, where visitors can mine for gems or peruse over 3,000 pieces of sapphire and ruby jewelry.
Beck and Siegford are far too modest to take credit for re-casting the 1990s mining town with a dwindling population as a vibrant tourism destination, but their vision and drive helped inspire other entrepreneurs to roll up their sleeves and spiff up the empty storefronts that once lined Broadway Street.
“It’s been a gradual change, but traffic has definitely picked up over the 20-some years we’ve been here,” said Siegford. “When we first started, there’d be days during winter — sometimes several in a row — where nobody came in. But now with the brewery and other businesses that have opened, we’re seeing more traffic.”
Today, Philipsburg Brewing Company, UpNSmokin’ BBQ House, Snookies Mercantile, Boehme Coffee Shop, Flint Creek Outdoors & Blackfoot River Outfitters, Doe Brothers Restaurant & Soda Fountain and other shops and restaurants lure visitors off Montana Highway 1 after Discovery’s chair lifts stop at 4 p.m. (Brick’s Pub, a funky space with soaring tin ceilings and garage door-style window up front, stands kitty corner from the candy shop serving burgers, chicken and waffles, and excellent cocktails — including a Moscow Mule for $3 if you present a Discovery lift ticket from that day.)
“At about 4:30 during winter we get a little rush — half a dozen groups or so will come in. I’m sure they’ve been skiing and that many will head out our door and run to the brewery or get something to eat,” Siegford said.
Our group took a few alternate routes from downtown to our hotel, The Inn at Philipsburg, because it’s fun to wind around and see all the quaint Victorian and Queen Anne-style houses that line the steep streets of the picturesque town.
At one point, we drove past the very impressive Winninghoff Park Ice Rink and Outdoor Amphitheater, a NHL-sized natural ice rink in the heart of the National Historic District about a block from the candy store.
“The ice rink is relatively new and has been a real draw,” said Siegford. “Hockey teams come to town to practice or for a tournament, and it’s definitely brought more activity to town.”
Our pack of kids eyed the “awesome!” sledding hill rising behind the skating rink — the slope is terraced with a series of steps on one end with a nice, steep snow-covered grade on the other. (Next time, we will be sure to pack skates and sleds — though Dale suspects loaner skates may be available in the beautiful new ice house next to the rink.) The park also serves as an amphitheater for summer concerts and events.
“Summer gets pretty busy,” said Siegford. “I do like the slower pace of winter, and it gives us a chance to catch up on maintenance projects. There’s enough of a crowd from June through September that we can’t spend a lot of time with any one person. They get a little more individual attention in the fall, winter in spring. That’s really enjoyable of us.”
The business does receive a large number of corporate orders in November and December, which keeps them hopping throughout the holidays — and also gets a small bump in individual sales around Valentine’s Day and Halloween.
But, Siegford admits, the days can get pretty long by the time springtime finally rolls around, and by then he’s always ready for things to pick up.
“In both businesses, people are coming in for good time,” said Siegford. “In Sapphire Gallery, we see a lot of folks who are getting engaged, married or are looking for an anniversary present. They’re in happy phase of life or are looking for a fun trinket or mineral item to bring home. Next door at The Sweet Palace, people are pretty upbeat and positive when they come in. Oh, we’ll get a crank every once in a blue moon, but it’s almost impossible to be crabby in a candy store.”