Transformations of Montana Avenue

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Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.

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Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

McAdow store 2011

At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.

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No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

Billings 2006 002 NPRR depot

Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.

 

Billings: heart of the Midland Empire

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The irrigation ditch at Hesper Ranch, where the irrigated empire of eastern Montana began in the late 19th century.

Billings, due to a young energetic staff at the city’s major history museum, the Western Heritage Center, gave me my first opportunities to learn and embrace the amazing landscape of Montana.  In 1982 the museum was finding its way; it was not the community institution that it has become some 30 plus years later.  Board members in 1982 were

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Western Heritage Center (the historic Parmly Billings Library), Billings, in 2006

interested in possibly recreating the old river village of Coulson, of which not a trace was left.  I explored the issue, recommended no, and then suggested that actually the founding and development of the town was a fascinating story–with a cast of characters.  Well, only a few people (Lynda Moss the education director then and David Carroll the exhibit curator) were fascinated with what I found, but I was a convert, and ever since I have been exploring the Midland Empire of Billings and Yellowstone County.

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The Big Ditch, at Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings)

Irrigation, those man-made slivers of life that slice through eastern Montana, was one important key to the story.  When Frederick Billings, the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, helped to established the “town on paper” called Billings in 1882, he soon discovered that while there was coal in the Bull Mountains to the north there was little land worth his salt for agricultural development, and Billings was nothing if not an energetic, progressive farmer back at his home in Vermont.

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The city’s centennial statue of Frederick Billings, which stood by a parking garage when I began my Billings history work in the 1980s. Due to the good efforts of Lynda Moss and others, it was appropriately moved to the grounds of the historic Parmly Billings Library (Western Heritage Center) over a decade later.

He counted on Benjamin Shuart, the local Congregational minister (who was supported by his wife Julia Billings) to be his man on the ground, checking into the agricultural potential.  Everyone understood that only water would make the ground bloom, so the construction of the Big Ditch began.  It ran through Shuart’s property he managed for the Billings family,

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

known as Hesper Farm.  When Billings lost faith in Shuart, and his own son Parmly unexpectedly passed away, Billings turned to one of his son’s workers, and friends, I. D. O’Donnell, to make his land valuable and to give life to the town that was named for him.  O’Donnell, self taught in the value of land, irrigation engineering, and the possible miracle crop of sugar beets, became the Oracle of Irrigation for not only the Yellowstone Valley but for all of the northern plains.

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O’Donnell expanded the ranch at Hesper Farm and turned into a private demonstration farm for the entire region, a place of beautiful cottonwood trees and modern barns.

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His enthusiasm and connections attracted other investors, and soon caught the attention of the new U.S. Reclamation Service, which made the Huntley Project its second one across the West.  Amazingly the very simple farm-vernacular building that housed the project’s office at Ballatine still stands, a little building that really conveys a huge story of a federal program that transformed a region.

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IMG_1295O’Donnell’s empire depended on others for capital, none no more so dependable that Preston Moss.  Moss also looked to the Midland Empire, and built his grand mansion in pursuit of that dream.  The Moss Mansion became a house museum in 1983.

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Not far away I. D. O’Donnell also had his town house, on a more modest scale but grand as far as many homes in the “new” Billings.  This Queen Anne house, like the Moss Mansion, were listed in the National Register in the 1980s, and the Moss-O’Donnell story

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became better known.  And the legacies extend to places not often thought historic.  That place would be the Billings Sugar Factory, a huge sprawling complex of where town meets farm, ironically located about halfway between downtown Billings and the old Yellowstone River townsite of Coulson.  Sugar beets made the valley bloom, and the landscape still shows those marks today.

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