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Interview with Jen McMillan, the Mayor of Bandit Town

There is a certain magic that happens when a woman follows a major vision into fruition.

Here at HTHG, we share stories of people who inspire.

My visit to Bandit Town last September brought out my best hair game, and inspired me in a major way…..I set up a little pop-up beauty parlor on an old porch, gave people beehives, and lost my heart to the old west for the weekend. The experience was truly so awesome that it led me to want to know more about the woman who makes Bandit Town exist.

I am a sucker for visiting places that make me forget about the rest of life, places that set the backdrop of a story that I get to write myself. Jen Mcmillan created that place herself, and her story is as authentic and inspiring as hell. Read on, and find out how this kick-ass mama stumbled into buying an old west town, and turned it into a thriving community space.

I decided not to edit her words, in an effort to preserve the authenticity of her  story and because she seems to write as if she is talking, which is awesome. So consider this a real conversation

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Jen McMillan, the Mayor of Bandit Town

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Jen, tell us a little story about how Bandit Town came to be?
So random. I was in LA area for work / Bandit Brand stuff (but I lived in Watsonville near Santa Cruz) and I happened to see on the Marquis at The Whiskey that a band I was into in my teenage years called Death Angel was playing and decided to stay in town another night to go to the show with my friend Fawn. Another friend of mine texted me when she saw we were down the street and invited us to The Rainbow for a drink so we met her up there and she does the line Midnight Rider and has a Waylon Jennings license to do tees (among others) and was having drinks with his son Shooter.

They invited me up to an actual ghost town called Bodie where she and Shooter were working on a music video the next day they invited me and I was down for an adventure and ended up meeting them at 8 am and following them up. On the way we stopped for a shot of Whiskey and a bathroom break and I honestly don’t have any idea where at but it must have been near Yosemite because while I was waiting out front for everyone I picked up a “Yosemite Real Estate Guide” and was thumbing through it and found an ad that read “Own your own Western Town” and the photos were insane and it was listed for $600k which I didn’t have of course but as far as California prices you can get a tiny place in a crappy neighborhood in LA for $600 k or you can buy an entire “Western Town” about 4 hours north of there. Needless to say I was obsessed and since I didn’t have any $ I was reluctant to see it in real life and get even more obsessed so I managed to put it off for about 6 months. When I finally couldn’t take it anymore I made an appointment with the realtor to come see it. The last 45 minutes of the drive here was beautiful and I was already ready to move here and then when I pulled up to Bandit Town I about shit myself. Its unreal.

IMG_0571(Jen with Donna)

Donna my realtor was also amazing. Older babe, Drove a big red truck, red cowboy boots and platinum hair stacked high. First thing she said to me was “nice shit kickers” and I knew I was home. She used to own “Old Town” in the 1970’s and had her real estate office there in 1979. She and her husband had partnered with another couple and eventually the other couple took it over. It was a real happenin place for several years and then went to hell and by the time I had found it, it had been vacant for about 18 years. It started out being listed at over a million.. then $875k… then they got an offer from the Arts Council that I believe was around $750k and turned it down for some reason.. then I showed up and Donna told me they were asking for $400k and it included the house next door and another almost 4 acre lot next to that. The Saloon alone is worth more than $400k so I was really freaking out and trying to figure it out.

I made an offer knowing I only had $35 in the bank and then started hitting up everyone I knew to see if they wanted to go in on it with me.. No one did. I was losing it trying to figure it out. Once I had been there I knew I had to bring it back to life. I literally fell in love. Then… My realtor talked the owners into carrying half so I just needed to come up with the other $200k. Had zero idea how I was going to pull it then my mortgage broker found an awesome local who lent me $100k… but I still needed another $100k.. I got an extension and finally was able to borrow $60k from my ex Jason Jessee and my mom and her husband lent me the remaining $40k.

Still owe everyone and have lots of payments and pay ridiculous interest but I pulled it off and here I am. I moved out here in the middle of winter December 2013. I had already packed up the moving truck and headed here when the closing was postponed… I stayed in a small motel here in town with my u haul parked outside for over a week and then finally closed and was able to move in.

I’ve been here two years now and still have a hard time believing its real.
How would you describe Bandit Town to someone who has never heard of it?
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 9.16.16 PMEpic trip back to the 70’s Eagles Desperado album… or in real life a place to come and take it easy and enjoy music and nature and good times with your friends new and old.

  How do you see BT as creating an authentic community for country folks and city folks alike?

I hope we can spread the word and set the example that the currency of family, friends, nature, music and the simple life far exceeds any monetary currency.
I can’t afford to pay my employees very much and luckily its cheap to live here but I know there is no other place they would rather be and that their hearts are in this as much as my own. It’s not always easy but we stick together and help each other.

Tell us about Bandit Brand, your apparel company.

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(Bandit Brand Official)

I started Bandit Brand a decade ago when I had a boutique and wasn’t finding t shirt brands I like or would wear and vintage was starting to get picked through and I wasn’t competitive enough and didn’t have the time away from work to go find it so I just made my own. I started out using blanks from Alternative Apparel but really wanted the tees to feel look and feel vintage and to make sure my fabric and tees were made in the USA and locally so I found a small factory willing to do small orders and started making my own. I couldn’t afford to do all kinds of fancy color ways and art so I narrowed it down to black and white tees and one color artwork so I could print it myself at home.
I have my own print shop in the basement now so we can experiment more with full color art but I still am best I think at designing the one color stuff. It took me years to find the right artist who could reach into my brain and my shitty sketches and reference and convey what I wanted but we have a complete family now and it’s better than ever.

  What is your dream for the future of Bandit Town?
It’s gonna take me years because of my lack of funds and help but my dream is to get all of these buildings fixed up into guest rooms so we can share this place year around and people can come experience life in Bandit Town.
I also want to get the camping in order.. build some stables so peoples horses can stay here too.. the kitchen in the Saloon going so we can feed everyone delicious organic local foods… keep inviting amazing vendors, makers, musicians and seeing the magic they all make… have an amazing general store… build some cool stuff…

7U6A1026The North Folk locals seem to have really welcomed you into the community. Did you know these folks before you moved into town? Talk a bit about your connection with them?
Not all of them like me, but I have made some amazing friends and this is an amazing community. I’ve never seen anything like it. I didn’t know a soul here before I came to look at the property, I’d never even been to the area. I came out to check out Bandit Town by myself and after meeting the realtor I ended up at The Buckhorn, the local bar here in town. The first person I met was a bartender named Paul. The Buckhorn and Paul are both epic. I always say North Fork isn’t a place its a time. It’s the most nostalgic place I’ve ever been and has the most authentic and genuine people I have ever met. People don’t move here because its trendy, they move here because it’s beautiful and to get out in the country and away from it all. It’s a real community and a real proud one. I noticed when I moved here that a lot of people in the surrounding towns talk shit or are scared of North Fork , it has a reputation of being full of drunks and bar fights and I also noticed that the people of North Fork were real worried we would perpetuate that reputation but in time I hope/think we have proven ourselves that we aren’t just bringing “partying” to their town that it’s much more than that and are careful not to disrespect them or their town. Were proud too. Real proud.7U6A1926

We are also working real hard to bring some economy to town. It was real important to me that we brought the town revenue not take it away so we let local food vendors etc vend for free at our events and keep 100% of the profits. We moved my Bandit Brand T Shirt brand up here from LA and rented space and employ a couple of locals and have rented and bought a couple of other spots in downtown North Fork that were in need of repair and sitting there for years in need of attention. Downtown is gettin super cute. Sounds like we are rich haha but I had a retail space in Santa Cruz before I moved here and paid more for rent there than I do for Bandit Town, our Bandit Brand Space and our Airbnb combined. Between all of these things I think we have brought a lot of people out to enjoy North Fork and those people all help to support the local economy.

What sort of cool shit did you do before you became the mayor of BT?
Hmmmm. I had a rad little boy when I was 19 and raised him myself (with the help of friends of course) and most proud of that and who he has become. Had some neat shops in Denver, Long Beach, Santa Cruz.
Ran around the country in my sweet custom 73 Ford Van peddling t shirts and broke down A LOT which made for some pretty radical adventures in towns i ordinarily never would have stopped in.

Where are you from originally?
Was born in Boulder City Nevada. My dad worked on the Hoover Dam. We then moved to California and shortly after my parents were divorced and I moved to a small town called Estes Park Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountain National Park. I grew up there.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 9.14.05 PM(Ladies Love Outlaws/ Bandit Brand Official)

Tell us about Ladies Love Outlaws and your lady gang of badass country babes?
Man we have some serious babes : ) Kind of the same thing as the animals that show up here. They just show up in my life and impress the shit out of me with their independent, kind-hearted, talented ways. Have no idea how they all got so dang good lookin.

 What sorts of country life challenges do you deal with regularly at BT?
Lots and lots of Chores. Horses, chickens, goats, turkeys, dogs, cats. Lots of shit (actual shit). Lots of muddy boots. Thankful Brittany and my Son and Piper (his lady) help me a bunch. I couldn’t handle it all. Rattle snakes… Bears… Mountain Lions. Lots of “Drifters” and weird shit.. we all carry guns.
Whom do you consider lifetime inspirations?
Willie Nelson mostly. His music of course but mostly what he has done for America. He brought American people together that before wouldn’t have ever spoken or been friends through his music, pot stance, farm aid… Conversations about farming that never would have happened. He brought REAL CHANGE to the Farming industry by shunning  corporate and factory farms and supporting small farms instead. No one… and I mean no one but him could have talked shit on farming practices and made rural people listen and bring about the huge changes that have occurred because of his involvement in Farm AId. Neil Young and everyone else involved are awesome too but WIllie had the country connection and that’s a large majority of who’s doing the farming. He is a common thread between cowboys, heshers, common folk, grandparents, the youth.. fuckin everyone. Who doesn’t like WIllie?

Dream future collaborations for Bandit Town?
I would love to collaborate with Wrangler, Peterbilt, Stetson, Pendleton, pretty much any iconic American brand I grew up around …
 Who isn’t invited to Bandit Town?
The trucker who didn’t get enough attention at our party so he honked… jake braked up and down the road, took out a stump and tore up the grass and every other jack ass move you can think of in the middle of the night pissing off me and my neighbors. Fucker. You know who you are.
  Favorite Bandit Town moment?

The first party was my favorite. My friends came from near and far in the middle of winter to support and be a part of the beginning of something really special. I also ended up marrying (and now having a little boy with) a fella who played our first show here. Pretty crazy stuff and I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me that was going to happen.

also when George from Black Oak Arkansas sat in my living room and played songs for my dog…

As the mayor of a town of outlaws, are their any steadfast rules at BT?
Mostly common courtesy. It amazes me how many people treat this beautiful place like a dive bar. (Which ps. even a dive bar deserves respect because someone owns it and pays for it and has to clean up after people). I’m constantly picking up after a huge percentage of the people, scraping gum off of carpet, dealing with destroyed bathrooms (grossest part and reason why there aren’t more parties)… we pick up cigarette butts for months after parties. If people knew how to clean up after themselves I would open full time but I can’t enjoy myself when I spend the whole party doing these things so I can’t devote my time until this changes. I hate that I have to punish the good because the actions of the ignorant but …
If you were to hire a sheriff, who would it be?
Probably my son. He’s fair and level headed but would fiercely protect us : )

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Jen, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for taking the time to share words about your Old West Vision turned reality. Stories like yours help us all find inspiration and strength to pursue grand visions. You story is a testament to the power behind stumbling into something awesome and taking it by the horns. Hat’s off, woman.

xo, HTHG

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