The Southsiders

Community historian Elisabeth DeGrenier stands in front of an exhibit at the Western Heritage Center.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette staff

Billings’ South Side has a wealth of history, and the Western Heritage Center wants to show it off.

A new exhibit titled “The Southsiders” gives insight into the people who populated the South Side in the city’s early days and what brought them to the Magic City in the first place.

The exhibit will make its debut with a free open house Wednesday, June 28, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the center, 2822 Montana Ave.

The idea came up a couple of years ago, and research got underway about a year ago, said Elisabeth DeGrenier, community historian at the WHC. It came from the heritage center's walking tours, she said.

The center offers a variety of tours downtown and elsewhere in Billings to shed a historical perspective on various neighborhoods and places of interest. For instance, “The Railroad Shapes Our Town” tells how the railroad affected the makeup of the downtown area.

More research led to the addition of the “Bars, Brothels and Bok Choy” tour, which explores the businesses that lined Minnesota Avenue and the existence of what was called China Alley.

“We started doing research in that area and then we realized how big a story there is to tell, and how neglected that had been,” DeGrenier said.

For instance, of all the historic photographs the WHC has obtained of the downtown area, 98 percent capture the north side of town and only 2 percent, the South Side.

So DeGrenier relied on insurance maps that detail the buildings on each block. She found newspaper articles that detailed the time, as well as other sources, and she relied on longtime residents to provide oral histories.

Out of all of that came the exhibit and a walking tour of the same name, which will take place three times over the summer, on Friday, July 21 and Aug. 25.

In early Billings, DeGrenier said, the minority populations tended to live south of the railroad tracks and east of South 27th Street. They were mostly Hispanic, African-American, Chinese and Germans from Russia.

The sugar beet factory brought in the Russian-Germans, she said.

“They emigrated from Russia and settled in the Midwest, Nebraska and the Dakotas,” DeGrenier said. “The factory ended up recruiting them from the Nebraska area around the 1900s.”

Eventually, they were able to buy farms of their own and settle around Billings, she said. But some remained on the South Side.

The Chinese came to Billings to work on the railroad, DeGrenier added. And when the railroad was complete, they opened stores and restaurants, Chinese laundries and saloons.

“The block where the skate park is, that entire block was China Alley,” DeGrenier said. “The two buildings still standing both have the exact same architectural design.”

The histories of all four groups are detailed in the exhibit, with photos and artifacts.

“One thing frustrates me is telling stories of women,” she said. “If they got caught soliciting prostitution or smoking opium, you always heard about the bad stuff. The only stories we can find are the bad ones.”

But DeGrenier enjoyed all that she learned working with her exhibit committee of four people who grew up on the South Side and represented the four different populations. They included Jim Ronquillo, Nellie Foster, Zenda Koch and Ying Custer.

“They all kind of jumped in and finished each other’s sentences,” she said. “It was great to see the research matched what they were saying.”

Koch, 72, grew up in a Russian-German family. She remembers her father calling the neighborhood where they lived “Dutch Row.”

“I always have been very proud to grow up on the South Side,” Koch said. “I felt we were blessed that we grew up with diversity.”

With a Catholic mother, Koch attended Little Flower Church. But she remembers two German-speaking churches in the neighborhood, one that’s now Pilgrim Congregational Church.

Koch acknowledges these days that there’s a certain stigma attached to the part of town that is south of the railroad tracks. She remembers walking four blocks to school, or going to the church in the evening for activities and always feeling safe.

“There was a sense of community there and people took care of each other,” Koch said. “It was a happy place to grow up.”

She enjoyed reminiscing with the other members of the group. They know a lot of the same people, she said, and shared what they knew with DeGrenier.

The historian is looking forward to sharing all she’s learned with people who till now haven’t known the South Side’s interesting history. But DeGrenier knows there’s more to discover.

“We kind of look at this as the start of how much there is left to be told and uncovered about the South Side,” she said.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.