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Starting over in Darby

Couple opens nano-brewery,

finds joy in new simpler small town life

DARBY – It’s no secret that the Great Recession turned many people’s lives upside down.

Afterwards, some wallowed in grief over what they’d lost. Others simply gave up.

And then there were those who decided there was no better time to stop, take a deep breath and reconsider what was really important in this life.

After considering the lessons learned during that upheaval, some folks opted to move forward to reinvent themselves and create a new life from the ashes of the old.

Down at the end of Darby’s Tanner Street, there’s an old building where Conner Logging’s mechanics once repaired helicopters and diesel trucks.

Today, people walking through its doors aren’t met with the smell of grease and oil. Instead inside this building now reborn, the aroma of hops and grain fills the air of the simply set, brand-new nano-brewery called Bandit Brewing.

For JC and Hilary McDowell, this place with its huge barrel stove over in the corner and recycled corrugated metal roof (purchased from a farmer in Arlee) is an important piece of the new life they’ve been working to build.

Before the recession, JC was a successful developer who thought he had hit the housing market just right in the Atlanta area. He and his wife saw their life savings disappear when the market turned south.

They lost their house and moved what they had left to their sailboat. Over the course of a few weeks on the water, they set a new course for their lives.

“One of the advantages of losing everything is that you don’t have a lot of overhead,” JC said. “When we made our million and lost it by age 40, we decided it was time to consider the quality of our lives. I couldn’t invest another 30 years in building another business only to lose it.”

“I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life,” JC said. “In my mind, getting a job would be the worst thing that could happen to me. I’ve always been self-employed.”

And so they bought a food concession truck and began following the fair circuit. Along the way, they kept looking for new opportunities.

With their own young children in tow, they noticed that most fairs didn’t have a nice place for parents with children too young to ride the carnival rides.

JC went to work and built a Wild West Fun Theme Park that the couple began booking at fairs around the West.

“I’ve learned that you follow the money,” he said. “When one thing works well, build on that.”

All the time while traveling from one fair to the next, they were looking for a new place to land.

After working the Ravalli County Fair, fair manager Deb Rogala offered them a place to stay two winters ago to see if they might like life in the southern Bitterroot.

They liked it so much that they decided to make it their new home.

“We were looking for a small town where we could raise our girls,” he said. “We wanted it to be a place where there was no Walmart or Home Depot. With a population of 733, Darby seemed a good fit.”

Both agree they came here because of what Darby is already. They had lived the big city life and that’s not what they wanted for their two youngsters. They wanted that sense of community that comes with small-town life.

They bought the old shop at the end of Tanner to store their fun park props. The property had another small building that they turned into their home.

It was first time they had a place of their own on dry land since 2007.

When they started considering the options for the portion of the shop not needed for storage, the couple decided it might work as a small brewery.

The zoning for the building fit that use. The necessary power was already in place.

“When we started, we agreed that we would do this, but not go into debt making it happen,” JC said. “I’d rather go slow than go broke.”

Using construction skills that he’d acquired throughout his life, JC put together the equipment necessary to operate a small brewery that would fit right in with the couple’s new small-town home.

Their idea was to take a step back in time in a town that treasures its past and recreate an old-time neighborhood pub where families could gather.

“We didn’t come here to change this community,” JC said.

“We wanted to keep this building intact as much as we could. It’s part of Darby’s history. That’s important.”

The couple knew they wanted to create a family-friendly place.

“We wanted it to be a community-based gathering place for families,” Hilary said. “We have our own two young children. … We plan to have a lot activities for children here.”

To make that clear to everyone in Darby, in their first week of business, they brought in Santa and offered free photographs. Their 7-year-old offered memberships to her lemonade mug club in one corner of the tasting room. Their youngest daughter wants them to host a cartoon night sometime soon.

They believe their brewery may be the smallest in the state.

JC serves as the brew master. His equipment allows him to brew 40 gallons at a time.

In comparison, JC said Bitterroot Brewing can brew more than 1,000 gallons in a day.

“We’re not in competition with any of the big brewers,” he said. “We’re not in competition with the local bars either.”

The brewery’s tasting room only stays open from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

At their recent opener, their tasting room was filled with people from the town and the surrounding area.

“It was really a lot of fun,” Hilary said. “No one was drunk. It was more like a big block party. That’s what we want this place to be.”

Both hope their business will play an important role in an economic resurgence in their new hometown.

In a small community like Darby, the same $5 bill can get a lot mileage, JC said.

It might start out paying for a haircut down on Main Street. By afternoon, it could end up in the cash register at one of the local restaurants. And later that same day, it could be buying a brew at Bandit Brewery.

“We know that’s how it works,” he said. “We also need to find ways to bring money in from the outside. That’s what our business can do through tourism. We all just need to work together to ensure that people stop here and see what we have to offer.

“We already have the traffic coming through town,” said JC. “We just need to get them to stop.”

The couple plans to offer specials to skiers and others traveling through town. Their brewery will also be added to a tourism map that includes all the breweries in the state.

They also plan to do what they can to help out local causes. In the near future, JC plans to brew a Darby Tiger Ale. They’ll donate a portion of the sales to the school system.

“Breweries have a long tradition of giving back to their community,” he said. “We want to continue that.”

The McDowells are happy they’ve found this new niche that will still leave them with time to slip away each year for a couple of months of sailing south of the border.

“Our daughters have really embraced their new lives in the West,” he said. “And they’re pretty good sailors too.”