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Making it in Big Sky: Steamboat Dry Goods

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Carolyn Whitmer plans to work seven days of week to get her new store, Steamboat Dry Goods, up and running, demonstrating the kind of work ethic she inherited growing up on an Indian reservation as the daughter of farmers in northeast Montana. PHOTO BY DOUG HARE

Q&A with Carolyn Whitmer

BIG SKY – On Jan. 28 in The Wilson Hotel, a ribbon cutting celebrated the grand opening of Steamboat Dry Goods, a retail shop featuring an eclectic array of clothing, footwear, jewelry, accessories for both men and women, crystal stemware, fine food items, bath and beauty products, swimsuits, wine and beer. Not many stores can boast about offering Osprey backpacks and lingerie under the same roof.

The daughter of farmers from Wolf Point, a small town on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana, Carolyn Whitmer was working in the corporate sales world based out of Oregon, traveling most of the year, when she decided to open a nursery in her hometown in 2008. Her journey as an entrepreneur has had its twists and turns, but her commitment to her customers, her love of storytelling, and her strong work ethic have remained constant.

Whitmer’s Montana roots run deep. Some of her ancestors originally came from Kentucky to survey the Gallatin Canyon down to Yellowstone National Park and the Bozeman Pass, others worked in Glacier National Park during its early days, a few were rugged homesteaders in eastern Montana, and some streets in Bozeman are named after her grandparents.

A proud Ohio State University graduate who majored in landscape horticulture with a minor in natural resources management while also a member of the school’s waterski team, Whitmer sat down with Explore Big Sky to discuss what drew her to southwest Montana, her philosophy of retail, and what makes her second retail venture unique.

Explore Big Sky: How did your formal education influence your career path?

Carolyn Whitmer: Everything in my college degree was centered around parks, recreation and environmental education. I did an internship down in Callaway [Resort &] Gardens down in Georgia. Since then, everything in my field has been centered around the outdoors and retail. That’s how I decided to start the store in Wolf Point in 2008. It originally started as a just a greenhouse nursery and that evolved into the clothing, footwear and accessories storefront based on demand in 2011. I really had to build everything from the ground up.

EBS: How did the opportunity arise for you to open up shop in Big Sky?

C.W.: The market is constantly changing in eastern Montana. … Besides getting a lot of business from locals, we get a lot of traffic from tourists because we’re right on U.S. Highway 2 on the way to Glacier [National Park]. We had to become tour guides for them, making recommendations for stops along the way to Jackson Hole, Yellowstone National Park or Bozeman. Nine times out of 10, we’d receive phone calls, Christmas cards and gifts in the mail thanking us for the advice, and these same tourists would return a couple years later and tell us we needed to spread our wings and branch out.

A year ago, my ski trip friends recommended I reach out to my contacts that are real estate agents in Bozeman—who I knew from my days studying at Montana State [University]. I didn’t know if the timing was going to be right. I made three phone calls and got the ball rolling. Things picked up speed after that.

EBS: How did you go about picking out the brands and accessories to include in your shop here?

C.W.: I used the same model that I did for my other store. Obviously, you have very different demographics for either location. I scouted and really wanted to focus on lifestyle apparel and travel and gift items. … In the wintertime in Wolf Point, we end up selling more summer gear than in the summer. I think that will be similar here. Even in the first week and a half, I’ve seen people from Texas, Florida or South Carolina buy out-of-season items.

EBS: Where does the name “Steamboat Dry Goods” come from?

C.W.: It gives homage to Montana and discovering the West. At our other location, we’re about a half mile from the Missouri River. Steamboats were originally built on the banks of the Ohio River and those boats would stop at Wolf Point, where you could see the wolf pelts, and that was a natural stopping point with their mercantile on their venture West. They were really important for the economic development of this state. Navigating the Missouri River is no easy task. 

EBS: What is the best business advice that you’ve ever received.

C.W.: Always treat your customers like they’re family. The more they feel at home and that they are valued the better. That’s the biggest thing: values, love and safety. … If you don’t value and love those around you and make them feel safe they won’t support you. That goes beyond retail. That goes for everything.

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