Joyce Jensen, a cornerstone of the Western Heritage Center, led 10 people on a revealing walking tour of downtown Billings on July 26.
On the walking tour, participants absorbed information about how Billings’ railroad-inspired layout developed - with the train station positioned in the center of the town - explored a tomblike interior chamber with colorful stained glass designs in the Babcock Building and eyed attractive retail shops during the one-hour walk.
Starting at the statue of Frederick Billings next to the Western Heritage Center, Jensen explained that Billings’ original financial structure was the Minnesota and Montana Avenue Land Improvement Co., which was deeded by the railroad one section of land on each side - stretching for about 40 miles - of the Yellowstone River. At the time, the town was known as a “Young Man’s Town,” where murder, suicide and death, some via horrific industrial accidents, struck daily. But Frederick Billings thought it was just the place to toughen up his son, Parmly.
Frederick Billings, a lawyer for whom Billings was named, “was too rich to be in a frontier town,” said Jensen. “And Frederick Billings was smart enough to know that the way to make money was to keep the railroad busy ferrying tonnage from the quarry” into Billings to create buildings.
“He just drove in one day and dropped off Parmly,” she continued. “Parmly was used to the finer things in life, came from Vermont; the family owned a home in New York and he was basically spoiled,” said Jensen.
Life in the 1880s frontier town indeed made Parmly more independent and he came to believe that “no finer thing could ever happen to a man in life than to have a library named after him,” said Ms. Jensen. And so his relatives assisted in the creation and dedication of the Parmly Billings Library in the building that later became the Western Heritage Center.
Jensen pointed out significant architectural features of the center, such as the carved tile red roof, which the center paid an artisan to retile.
The artisan, Gene Halone, procured the naturally red tile from a stone quarry in Columbus, according to Jensen, and “duplicated what the WHC already had.”
She pointed up at the capitals, the decorative carvings encircling the tops of the columns, and said they were all different. The artisans left no two leaf carvings or other decoration on each capital the same.
Called “Richardsonian Romanesque,” the architecture livening up Billings’ various facades is named for the architect Henry Hobson Richardson, 1838-86, and includes arches, dentils (evenly spaced squares that resemble teeth) and pediments (structures on which artists carve historical scenes and other decorations). Interesting ledges jutted out from the buildings.
There is also a beautiful stone carving set into the lower part of the Kress building, which the tour group glanced at beyond construction vehicles and barriers.
Interesting stores dotted the way. For example, racks of winter coats snaked their way out of Yesteryears Antique Mall - which also serves coffee - onto the sidewalk. Montana Vintage Clothing promised to dress up customers in old-time threads and the Athenian, a Greek restaurant, beckoned those who had not eaten lunch yet.
The Army Navy Surplus Store statue of a Revolutionary War soldier greeted all members of the tour. “RWB welcomes you,” was inscribed on a panel atop the statue’s chest. The tour also dashed through the Catherine Louisa Gallery in the Babcock building. From noon to one, Billings streets are busy and noisy.
Sirens screamed in the distance, automobiles roared, motorcycles revved their engines, drivers honked their horns in the adjacent streets, and trains rhythmically rumbled, clanging their warnings. FedEx trucks whizzed by, and a huge, dusty recreational vehicle towing a sport utility vehicle encrusted with mud and a canoe strapped on it rolled up. Ms. Jensen cautioned the group that she would let the noise died down before attempting her mini-lectures at each stop on the tour. Passersby hurried on past the group on the noisy walking tour.
Tour stops with detailed descriptions included the former livery stable that is now the Crowne Plaza Hotel, the horseshoe decorations surrounding the bases of trees lining Montana Avenue, the brick remnants of the original street, and a zip through Jimmy John’s to access an interior chamber in the Babcock building. Silence then reigned as noise from the street faded.
The tour group, shrouded indoors in a cool, calm, almost muffled atmosphere, learned that the chamber of the 1907 Babcock building treats visitors to an unusual old-time interior. Several pink and green stained glass panels of matte (not shiny) glass with multi-faceted colored baubles mounted on them, old-fashioned octagonal white tile floors and elegant and shiny wood paneling along the walls invited the group to linger. An attractively curved ceiling, decorative moldings stretching the length of the chamber walls and bright skylights above, from which prisms magnified and extended the light, delighted participants accustomed to mostly fluorescents, not enhanced skylights.
Most of the participants said they had not previously known so many fascinating nuggets and sights pivotal to their town’s frontier history. Two tour visitors, Nancy and Clarence Darland, both 66, from Thermopolis, Wyo., said, “We thoroughly enjoyed the tour. We are staying here for a week in Billings. We are avid gun enthusiasts here for the Cabela’s Card Family Fun Day at Blue Creek.” They said they are also planning to return next week for another event.
Ms. Jensen said she looked forward to finally entrusting most remaining duties of her position to the new community outreach coordinator, Tabatha Butler.
Ms. Butler, a 27-year-old from Pocatello, Idaho, armed with a graduate degree in applied historical research from Boise State University, arrived at the Western Heritage Center in March.
“I was born and raised in Pocatello, Idaho, and I specifically went to Boise State to focus on my graduate thesis, [which dealt with] the 1880s Merci Trains, which were gifts from France,” said Ms. Butler.
The gifts – 50 boxcars with foodstuffs, other staples and even elegant lace – made frontier life livable, she said. Boxcars and trains were paramount in the development of Billings, the tour leader said.
All in the tour group received a free pass to the Western Heritage Center. The tour cost $10 for adults and $5 for students with a valid student ID. It is free to children under 12 with a parent. Check out www.ywhc.org for more information on future walking tours, which will be held Aug. 9, 16 and 23 this season.