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Walking through history
Ann Kooistra-Manning, a consultant with the Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board, co-authored a brochure that gives historical backgrounds of the banners hanging along Montana Avenue.

In 1929, a federal sting operation at the Carlin Hotel on Montana Avenue snared the mayor of Billings, Arthur Trenerry, for violating prohibition laws.

Trenerry later was acquitted, but the story lives on.

That's just one of the behind-the-scenes vignettes that Ann Kooistra-Manning loved digging out of the past for a brochure describing a walking tour along Montana Avenue.

The avenue, one of the first two main commercial streets in Billings, is a gold mine of fascinating history. Although it played second fiddle for a short time, Montana Avenue became a commercial hub of the growing city.

In March 1882, Billings was platted by the Montana and Minnesota Land & Improvement Co.

The two main commercial streets running parallel along the Northern Pacific tracks were named after the land company.

Businesses sprang up on both sides of the railroad tracks, but most homes were built south. Brothers Christian and Peter Yegen were among the early pioneers who built large houses on the South Side.

A park with trees spread along the northern part of the tracks starting just west of North 27th Street.

Billings' first hotel, the Headquarters Hotel, was built in 1882 on Montana Avenue and later moved close to the tracks to a spot that North 28th Street now crosses. Built as a hotel for railroad crews, it became a temporary depot for train passengers. The hotel burned in the 1890s.

A new depot was opened in 1909 across from 24th Street North.

After the depot moved and 28th Street was opened, development began moving north, Kooistra-Manning said.

Spur rail lines also encouraged building north of the tracks,

The opening of the Parmly Billings Library, now the Western Heritage Center, in 1901 also signaled the importance of the area and that Billings had arrived. The turreted building now is the oldest original building on Montana Avenue. The second oldest is the Losekamp Block built across the street in 1903.

"Getting a library meant that Billings was viable as a community," Kooistra-Manning said.

Ambitious local leaders had a vision of Billings as something more than a fly-by-night temporary railroad town. They wanted a substantial community with schools, library and churches.

Billings and Montana Avenue continued to flourish through the early years of the century during the homesteader boom. The population of the city soared from 836 people in 1890 to more than 3,000 in 1900 and then more than 10,000 in 1910.

The population was surprisingly cosmopolitan. In 1900, a quarter of Billings residents were foreign born, according to a history of downtown Billings by Chere Jiusto on the Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board's Web site, www.billings.com.

Smaller communities, such as Custer, Worden and Broadview, around Billings also were flourishing.

"The railroad connected them all," Kooistra-Manning said.

Many hotels were built to handle passengers coming in on trains.

One such establishment, the Oxford Hotel, was built in 1908, with other additions later, said owner Mike Gregory. Gregory and his wife, Alex, have owned an antiques business in the former hotel for 25 years.

Although the building has had some renovation, narrow hotel halls and tiny rooms still exist in parts of the building.

Businesses and warehouses funneled goods from Billings and the surrounding areas onto trains and handled cargo coming off trains.

Local products weren't just cattle, sheep and grain. Goods manufactured in Billings also were shipped out.

By 1917, for example, Billings had five cigar factories.

To boost business, railroads promoted Billings and Montana to farmers and city-dwellers alike. More business for Billings meant more business for the railroad.

The Billings Chamber of Commerce wasn't shy about promotion either. In 1921, it published "Billings Beckons," filled with photos of local mansions and churches.

Montana Avenue's influence waned along with that of the railroad. After it fell on hard times many older buildings were neglected until a renaissance in the last couple of decades renewed interest.

A long stretch of Montana Avenue was designated the Billings Townsite Historic District. The district is along both sides of Montana Avenue from North 26th Street to North 22nd Street, the south side of First Avenue North between those streets and the south side of Montana Avenue between North 27th and North 26th streets.

An architectural survey of older buildings west of the current district on Montana Avenue and those on Minnesota Avenue has been completed as a first step to create a new historical district.

The revival has brought more visitors to see Montana Avenue and stop in businesses, restaurants and entertainment venues.

"People are fascinated by historic districts," said Vicki VanBuskirk, owner of Toucan Gallery, located in a 100-year-old building at 2505 Montana Ave.

The only thing a community has to tout as unique is its own history, said Greg Krueger, executive director of the Downtown Billings Partnership.

"Everything else is cookie cutter," he said.

The history of Montana Avenue is a great draw for visitors from out of town.

But historical preservation benefits local residents, too, by connecting them to their past.

"Our work is to share the history of Billings and Yellowstone County and give people a sense of place and to show that a town isn't just a collection of buildings," Kooistra-Manning said.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

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