Not long after Billings popped up as a bustling railroad town in 1882, a single downtown site has been, in one way or another, a hub for the city's public education.
Spanning almost an entire block on the north side of Fourth Avenue North between North 29th and 30th streets and now called the Lincoln Center, the 142,000-square-foot, four-story building houses the School District 2 administration offices, along with adult education and nearly 30 other education-related programs and services.
"It's a very eclectic role at the Lincoln Center because we service students there, we service staff there," said SD2 Superintendent Terry Bouck. "We provide adult education, community education and we often meet with community members and parents to provide support."
But since Billings' first permanent school was built there in 1883, the site has housed at one time or another just about every service the district provides, from primary, middle and high schools and adult education to administration, school board meetings, storage and record keeping.
Less than a year after the official creation of Yellowstone County on Feb. 26, 1883, Billings' first permanent school opened in January 1884 to fewer than 100 students, a pair of teachers and a principal. It was built using an $8,000 bond passed by a public vote of 80-1 and a $4,000 donation from Fredrick Billings, the man after whom Billings is named.
It was called simply The School House and then the North School Building when another school was built in what is now the South Side. In her writings detailing the early days of education in Billings, called "The History of the Billings Schools, 1879 to 1936," Ruth N. Weyer hinted at the numerous roles the site would play over the years.
"When there were two school houses on the north side, the first building became known as the 'Old North School' — and in 1906, when names were given to all of the Billings school buildings — this first brick school building, built in 1883-84, was named the 'Lincoln,' " she wrote. "During its lifetime, it served many purposes."
One of the school's first principals, a New York transplant named George W. Shoemaker, gained notoriety as a severe disciplinarian with a reputation for violence.
A Jan. 4, 1931, Billings Gazette article on the early days of Billings schools details how Shoemaker was brilliant and eccentric but "seemed to delight in inflicting punishment." Children referred to the school's basement, where punishments were doled out, as a "chamber of horrors" and several told the paper that he would walk the aisles and crack their knuckles with a pointer or leather strap during writing lessons.
"The teacher's tactics on at least one occasion won him a pair of black eyes inflicted by an irate parent," the Gazette article said.
On another occasion, Shoemaker suffered a sprained ankle when an older girl he was trying to punish shoved him down a set of stairs. He retired in 1886.
Weyer noted in her writings that disciplinary problems of the day were serious, especially involving 17- and 18-year-old boys from outlying ranches, and difficult for the easterners who typically came in to lead the school to grasp.
"For instance, it is said that a group of young men insisted on wearing six-shooters to school," she wrote. "Naturally, an easterner would have difficulty in reconciling himself to this situation."
School enrollment in Billings exploded in the following decades — mirroring the boom in overall population — from fewer than 100 in a single building to more than 4,600 by the mid-1930s in 10 schools.
During that time, the function and number of the buildings at the site also changed. In 1900, what would come to be called the Jefferson school was built on the property and eventually designated as the city's high school.
As the number of students grew, so did the need for a full high school building and, in 1912-13, the district built Billings High School on the same plot of land as the Jefferson and Lincoln schools.
By 1934, the original Lincoln building no longer housed classrooms and, for several years, had served as office and storage space. Thanks to a $400,000 voter-approved bond issue, additions were made to the high school and junior high units on the property, including an auditorium and connecting the two buildings, which eliminated the need for the old building.
"When the decision was rendered in favor of the new additions in the school block, it meant the Lincoln Building was doomed and in the summer of 1934, it was demolished by workmen in order to make room for 'educational progress,' " Weyer wrote.
However, education continued at the site. After construction on Billings Senior High finished in 1940, the combined building became Lincoln Junior High, serving middle school-aged students in Billings for decades to come.
During that time, the function and number of the buildings at the site also changed. In 1900, what would come to be called the Jefferson school was built on the property and eventually designated as the city's high school, while also serving middle-school-aged students.
It continued as a junior high, serving generations of Billings students, until the spring of 1985, when most of the students there transferred to Lewis and Clark.
An April 6, 2001, Billings Gazette article notes that a significant amount of SD2's history was lost in a tragedy in the early 1990s, making some historical records spotty at best.
"A sizable portion of the history of the Billings Public Schools was lost in the warehouse fire triggered by the crash of a twin-engine airplane (into an SD2 warehouse) in December of 1992," wrote Donna Healy in a story examining the closing of Billings schools over the years. "The missing records make it difficult to precisely piece together an exact record."
From 1985 to 1987, students who would eventually go to the still-under-construction Skyview High School in the Heights spent their days learning at Lincoln.
After the 1989 renovations throughout the building the SD2 administration moved into the building from its old offices at 101 10th St. W.
It remains there today and now houses nearly 30 different services and around 150 employees. Most of SD2's administration is based out of the Lincoln Center, as are its special education administration, music director's office, grant writer, Indian education head, a doctor and nurse for faculty and staff through a program called miCare.
In a small building in the courtyard in the middle of property, at about the same spot where the original school was built, sits the SD2 Board of Trustees boardroom, where the group holds its regular meetings and shapes the district's policies along with its future.
Students also still spend time in the classroom there, either through Billings' adult education program, which graduated about 300 students each of the past two years in GED or GED-equivalent programs. For school-aged students, there are summer school classes and programs set up for high schoolers in need of extra attention, such as the truancy program or Transitions, which works with students with serious issues in an effort to keep them in school.
Community 7 Television, Billings' public access channel, calls the basement home.
"They've been a good partner," Bouck said. "They help us get out the word on their programs."
Come this fall, the building, or at least part of it, will return to its roots when about 175 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students from McKinley Elementary attend the 2014-15 school year on its third floor while renovations at their regular school are completed.
"It'll be refreshing to bring in those students from McKinley because it really does a lot to connect our staff here that might not get out to the schools as much as they'd like with the kids and teachers," Bouck said.
As the building comes full circle — at least for one school year — as a school house for Billings' youngsters, it will continue to provide all of the services and support it has since becoming SD2's headquarters and, according to school officials, continue to shape how kids learn in Billings.
"It plays a tremendously important role in driving education in our community," Bouck said.