Billings was hopping for holiday 100 years ago

2013-12-25T00:00:00Z 2013-12-26T09:03:09Z Billings was hopping for holiday 100 years agoBy LORNA THACKERAY The Billings Gazette

Three days before Christmas 1913, Anna Held, one of the most famous actresses of her day, stepped out of her special train in Billings and began hawking The Billings Gazette.

“Paper mister,” the Polish-born star all but commanded as she strode through downtown businesses, accepting any amount dazzled customers wanted to pay. Chorus girls from her comic opera “Mademoiselle Baby” followed in her wake with great stacks of newspapers.

In the hour before the matinee at the Babcock Theater, the “vivacious, the queenly, the favorite of cosmopolitan audiences,” had sold $200 worth — a princely sum 100 years ago.

Proceeds went to the Big Brother Christmas Tree at the Elks Club. Every cent would benefit the community, especially hundreds of poor swept into the city in a spectacular period of growth.

After her evening performance, Held and her entourage waded into the crowded theater and sold another $100 worth of the evening edition.

The millionaire actress, famous for a vast and stylish wardrobe that included a $20,000 Russian sable coat, had recently split from her common-law relationship with legendary Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. Held has been credited with concocting the showgirl format that became the Ziegfeld Follies.

Capping the evening, Elks Lodge 394 invited the whole theater company to a late evening repast. Just before boarding the train that swept her out of the city at 1:30 a.m., the toast of London, Paris and New York told her Billings well wishers, “I’ve had the time of my life.”

On Christmas Eve, members of the Elks Lodge delivered 654 packages of shoes, caps, mittens and clothing to the doors of poor families in the area. Most of the items been donated anonymously by local merchants.

The Elks were not alone in making Christmas merry that snowy, prosperous holiday season. The Salvation Army and the Billings Women’s Club, along with area churches, had been busy since Thanksgiving, making sure that no poor family was overlooked.

Representatives from the Women’s Club and the Salvation Army combed through hundreds of Santa letters, most written on school tablet paper.

“If parents can’t help, they will try to meet each reasonable request,” The Gazette reported.

On Dec. 23 and 24, the Salvation Army distributed 60 boxes of groceries to poor families — enough to feed a family of five for three days. Sixty homeless men feasted at the Salvation Army kitchen at 27th Street and First Avenue North on Christmas Day. That evening, poor children selected from those who wrote to Santa were picked up in automobiles and delivered to Santa at Salvation Army headquarters, where gifts and goodies awaited.

All of the city’s children were invited to the Elks Club for gifts and food at noon Christmas Day. The newspaper reported that 1,000 children waited in line. The Star Theater opened its doors that afternoon for a free children’s show.

Population burgeoning

Billings, only 31 years old in 1913, could already boast 15,000 people. A railroad man passing through the city during the holidays predicted 25,000 more in five years.

Although even city officials doubted that inflated figure, the newspaper boasted that another 10,000 people wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

There was good reason to believe that settlers would keep filling up the prairie around Billings. Just before Thanksgiving, the government announced that it would release 600,000 acres, mostly between the Yellowstone and Musselshell rivers, for homesteading on Dec. 6. That would translate to 2,000 320-acre homesteads and bring in 10,000 people.

The Billings Land Office prepared for a rush of filings and was not disappointed. When tracts in the Bull Mountains between Roundup and Billings came open Dec. 21, more than 200 men and women stood in line. In the crush at the counter, one of the smaller men was pushed into a glass panel, which shattered over the floor. When the office closed late that night, a large crowd was still waiting.

Changes ahead

Billings and the rest of the county were rolling in a wave of reformation in 1913. Throughout the country, temperance and women’s suffrage were fiercely debated. Women in Montana won the right to vote by 1914, though it took the country as a whole until 1920 to approve the 19th Amendment.

Churches regularly invited lecturers touting prohibition to speak to the community. In December, Dr. Clarence True Wilson, national secretary of the Temperance Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, was invited to address what was expected to be one of the largest crowds ever gathered in Billings.

Prohibition became law in Montana in 1918 — two years before it became federal law.

Council plan

Enthusiasm for reform overwhelmed the city council in late November when Alderman McDonald proposed closing Billings' most notorious quarter — the “restricted district” confined to a few blocks south of the railroad tracks.

At its earliest incarnation as a railroad town in 1882, Billings was wide-open to vice of every order. As the city grew and civilized, it segregated and regulated a thriving vice district.

In a fit of activity during the holiday season, the city decided to shut down its long-established and embarrassing restricted district. Police Chief Bert Talgo was ordered to make sure the red light in every house of ill fame was turned off by Feb. 1.

The shutdown was to begin almost immediately. By order of the council, all the “resorts” in the district were prohibited from serving alcohol and playing any kind of music, live or mechanical, as of Dec. l. All signs had to be removed from the buildings and “all inmates of the places who appear on the streets in anything but decent street dresses are to be arrested.”

Talgo and his 11 officers cheerfully obeyed their orders. A few days after the council acted, Talgo informed The Gazette that he had already charged four women with street walking.

No police force in the state was better equipped to do battle against evil. Talgo noted that his force averaged an ideal weight of 205 pounds and a height of 6 feet. All were in perfect physical condition, he bragged.

Fearing that displaced purveyors of vice would move into more respectable areas of town after their houses closed, Talgo warned that he was ready to arrest any woman of known bad character or who behaved suspiciously.

“If necessary we will employ plain-clothes men to watch every apartment house and hotel in the northern part of town,” the chief told The Gazette.

Local clergymen vowed to help any fallen women who wanted to reform once the district closed.

“Cards bearing the name and addresses of several church chairmen are to be posted in each house in the regulated district and the police station so those who desire to break away from old associations will know to whom to apply for assistance,” The Gazette reported.

By midnight Feb. 1, the district was dark. Most of its denizens had left in December.

Billings wasn’t the only Montana city mired in reformation. A few days after Billings voted to shut down its red-light district, Livingston did the same.

Reform didn’t stop with driving out the sex trade. On Dec. 3, the council voted to ban slot machines. Fines were established at $10 to $20, and the police chief notified owners of restaurants, cafes and cigar stores.

In Pompeys Pillar, 16 residents signed a petition protesting the reissuance of a license to the local saloon.

Morality moves up

Reformers were on the march to clean up the city both morally and physically. Dr. E. G. Balsam, city health officer, took the lead. He did not want to be embarrassed when other Montana health officers converged here for their annual meeting in January.

Balsam and the Women’s Club went on a tour inspecting restaurants, butcher shops and candy stores to ensure sanitary conditions. Men at the YMCA were treated to lectures on cleanliness.

The good doctor was thrilled when the town’s theater managers came to him for help in curbing customers’ habit of spitting on the floor. He warned that anyone caught expectorating on floors and sidewalks would be prosecuted.

“If examples are made in a few cases, I believe Billings will be entirely rid of the nuisance by the time of the Montana Health Officers Association next month,” Balsam said.

Balsam also sent notices to all the barn owners in town requesting that they install manure boxes. Although automobiles were no longer a rare sight in Billings, horses and wagons were still a critical part of the transportation system.

In his notice, Balsam gave barn owners until spring to clean up the manure around their barns and the alleys behind their homes.

His concern for the city’s health was not unfounded. Cases of typhoid, TB and other communicable diseases were still regularly mentioned in the pages of The Gazette.

Most dangerous of all diseases plaguing the city that season was measles. Dr. Balsam cajoled, then threatened to arrest parents who did not report to him when a family member contracted the deadly disease.

When attorney W.R. Swank, who was staying at the YMCA, was diagnosed with measles, the whole facility had to be fumigated. Swank was removed to the county detention hospital in what it now the Heights until he was no longer contagious.

Around the globe 

In other parts of the world in 1913, civil war was waging in Mexico with Poncho Villa battling federal troops. War was simmering in the Balkan states and would boil over into the rest of Europe as the "Great War " — we call it World War I — in 1914.

The 16th Amendment authorizing a federal income tax was passed, as was the 17th Amendment requiring the direct election of U.S. senators.

The first drive-up gas station opened in Pittsburgh and the Post Office initiated parcel post so packages could be shipped through the mail. Henry Ford installed a rolling conveyor belt in his Detroit factory, initiating the mass production of automobiles.

The parachute was invented, and the Mona Lisa, stolen from the Louvre in Paris in 1911, was recovered. Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract for the unheard-of paycheck of $150 a week.

Born that year were U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, civil rights icon Rosa Parks, film star Loretta Young and Olympian Jesse Owens.

In the sports world, Olympic champion Jim Thorpe relinquished his medals because he had accepted money for playing baseball. That year, he joined the New York Giants.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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