For two days this month, thousands of people will enjoy an afternoon in South Park, perhaps for the first time.
Even though the park has been around since 1902, some people are reluctant to cross the tracks and head south.
When Magic City Blues began using the park in 2011 as a venue for its Sunday music lineup, people asked promoter Tim Goodridge where it was, even though South Park is the oldest park in the city. It stretches between Sixth Avenue South and Eighth Avenue South and between South Broadway and South 31st Street.
Some folks still haven't figured out it's only nine blocks south of Skypoint on South Broadway. This year, Magic City Blues is using the park for two days on Aug. 9 and 10.
And, possibly for the first time in the park's history, there will be a VIP area.
Beginning Wednesday, arborists will climb the 60-foot cottonwood trees in the park to string a series of fabric sails that will offer shade during the music festival for the crowd expected to see Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite on Aug. 9 and Huey Lewis and the News on Aug 10.
Goodridge said a big draw to bring Harper and Musselwhite to Billings was that they can perform in a shady, urban park, not downtown on the hot pavement of Montana Avenue, where the Aug. 8 show is.
The atmosphere has been improving at South Park since Magic City Blues began presenting live music there, City Council member Mike Yakawich said. But there is still room for improvement.
Transients congregate where the wading pool was originally located in the northeast corner, and the tennis and basketball court surfaces are crumbling and in need of repairs.
“The Blues Festival has been a real plus for the community, but the residents here sometimes feel disenfranchised,” Yakawich said. “No one cares about us.”
The more that families use the park, the less comfortable transients will feel about gathering there, Goodridge said.
“I always felt that South Park was an underused park that had so much to offer. That’s why I chose South over Pioneer.”
The new gazebo was dedicated in 2013, and next weekend it will be turned into the South Park Tap Room, offering beer from four local microbreweries during the festival.
But will any of the music fans come back to swim or play tennis?
A 2013 use study of Billings city parks by Corona Insights revealed that South Park is one of the least-used parks. Of the 3.4 million visits to city parks in 2013, between 62,000 to 95,000 of the visits were to South Park.
Not surprisingly, the two most popular of the city's 47 developed parks are Pioneer Park, which has 594,652 visits per year, and Riverfront Park, which has 482,642 visits a year. South Park is in the bottom four of the 17 parks reviewed along with Optimist, Sacajawea and Mountview Cemetery parks.
Yakawich said he walks the park at least once a week and always sees a variety of activities going on, including rugby and softball practices in the spring and fall, and people playing tennis and basketball. He has also picked up litter, including a syringe lying on the ground.
“There are issues that people don’t want to use this park when there are people under the picnic shelter drinking,” Yakawich said. “Yet we’re trying to bring more people to South Park. The gazebo is used almost every weekend in the summer. When there is a lot of use, there is less impact from the transients.”
The swimming pool, which is about half its original size, is a hub of activity in the summer. The pool opened July 4, 1914, the first open-air pool in Billings and the largest open-air pool in the country at the time.
“There’s never a dull moment,” said pool manager Robert Ronquillo. “I run the detention room during the school year at Riverside and a lot of the kids I deal with during the year are here in the summer. Even when they’re trouble, I like working with kids.”
Many local kids spend the better part of their days swimming at South Park Pool with their friends. Most of the swimmers there qualify for free swim passes through the city. Yakawich acknowledged that the South Park Pool does not generate any revenue for the city, but it provides a safe place for kids to recreate.
“It feels like home here,” said Pito Nava, 14. “I was probably 5 or 6 when I started coming to the pool. I’m here almost every day.”
Sabrina Hart, 12, said she’s been bringing her younger brother to the pool for years.
“It’s fun because all of my friends are here," Hart said.
Water was initially routed to the South Park Pool from Grey Eagle ditch through 2,600 feet of 4-inch pipe. When the pool opened, the manager warned bathers not to bring in soap or tobacco.
“An army of youngsters are quarreling and wagering upon the momentous question of which will be the first in the water,” The Billings Evening Journal reported the day before the pool opening.
That question still crops up during the summer when the pool opens at noon. Ronquillo said he spent many happy summer afternoons swimming at South Park Pool, walking over from his home near the pool. For the past 16 years, he’s been working at the pool, watching kids charging through the gate on 90-degree days elbowing each other to be the first one in the pool.
In the early days, even though the community around the pool was primarily Hispanic, minorities were not allowed to swim in the pool on the weekends. Mary Alvarez remembers her aunts and uncles telling her that they were only allowed to swim on Sunday nights because the pool was drained on Mondays.
“I know they felt that they were being discriminated against,” said Alvarez, who recently moved back to Montana from California.
Former City Council member Jim Ronquillo said an African American man living on First Avenue South, angry about the restricted use of the pool, built his own pool out of concrete in the 1950s and invited the neighborhood kids to swim there.
Ronquillo grew up on the South Side and still lives one block south of the park on South Broadway, also known as South 28th Street.
“The gathering place was the gazebo. All of the neighborhood kids would gather there,” Ronquillo said.
When the old gazebo was torn down, the South Side community rallied, along with Goodridge, to have a new one built.
The new gazebo is the site for the summer lunch program and almost 100 students from the nearby Friendship House for Christian Service come for lunch and visit the pool during the week. Next summer, a new spray park will be constructed at South Park.
When the pine trees were planted on the south end of South Park, Ronquillo remembers jumping over them in a game of leap frog with his best buddies, Johnny Mota and Richard Nava.
Now those trees are 30 feet tall, and the park has undergone other changes as well. Gone are the lilac bushes that added shade and foliage to the park, and in 1987, the pool was remodeled making it half its original size and half the depth. The original size was 62 feet long, 17 feet wide and 9 feet deep at the deep end. Maximum depth is now 5 feet, and the diving board has been replaced with two small plastic water slides.
South Park used to be watered by a series of rock-lined ditches, and in the 1950s, Ronquillo remembers when the park manager used to flood the park to water it and the neighborhood kids would grab the trout that were left behind in the shallow ditches.
Ronquillo, 70, takes his grandkids to the park to play, telling them stories of the old days at South Park.
The latest loss to the neighborhood was the closing of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church last month. The church, which is across the street from the park, was consolidated with Little Flower and Holy Rosary to form Mary Queen of Peace Church.
Still, the Hispanic community turned out in force on July 26 for the Mexican Fiesta, which raises money for their new church. Juneteenth, an observance of the day that slavery was abolished, is always celebrated at South Park, and the annual Easter Egg Hunt draws hundreds of kids from throughout Billings and often from throughout the area, Ronquillo said.
The days of running free through the trails at South Park are over, but with new attractions like Magic City Blues and new amenities like the gazebo and the spray park, South Park is entering a new era.