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Legacy of young woman who designed Pioneer Park lives on in 'quietness and charm'

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Happy birthday, Dorothy Gray

Dorothy Gray, the designer of Billings’ Pioneer Park, was born on this day 126 years ago, and lived only 40 years. The 35 acres that made her famous around town were born from an inland sea 65 million years ago. In the early 1900s this acreage was a patch of ranch land until Gray was appointed by the city to turn it from feeding cattle to feeding the spirits of the residents of the rapidly-growing city.

Gray was just 25 years old when in 1921 the city’s park board hired her to write a plan turning the grazing land into an urban park. The men on the board might have congratulated themselves for being progressive by awarding a big project to a young woman. Many in the U.S. still clung to the opinion that women belonged in the home. But it would have been a dereliction of duty if the board had not selected Gray. She was the obvious choice.

Pioneer Park, ca. 1940

Historic Billings aerial views.

Gray demonstrated her aptitude for landscaping while still in high school. In the spring of 1914, Gray’s senior year, the city had finished construction of its new high school, presently the Lincoln Center in downtown Billings at Fourth Avenue and 30th Street. School officials invited students to enter a contest proposing plans for beautifying the grounds. Gray took first place.

The next fall, Gray enrolled in a landscape architecture program at Cornell University in New York. Cornell boasts that its landscape architecture program had from its inception been one of the most prestigious in the country. Gray earned her bachelor’s degree there in three and one-half years. During her time at Cornell, she was the only woman student from Montana. When she returned to Billings, she opened a successful landscaping business and counted many of the city’s upper crust as her clients. Gray’s qualifications made her a rarity in Montana.

Pioneer Park as Gray designed it was largely based on a mixture of two urban park models — the “pleasure ground model” of the 19th century and the “reform model” of the early 20th century. The former emphasized the creation of beautiful scenery for passive enjoyment. The latter put a premium on providing places for organized recreation, on the theory that with social reforms like the eight-hour workday, people might have too much free time and not enough to do (buying into the old fear about idle hands).

Hammocking in the sun at Pioneer Park

A person relaxes in their hammock atop a hill at Pioneer Park as children play at the playground below in March, 2021. 

Gray’s plan incorporated wholesome options to fight off the temptations of idleness. She favored keeping some recently built amenities such as a wading pool and tennis courts, which were updated and expanded over the years. Her plan also called for an open-air theater, and picnic areas with shelters and grills. Although it is not clear whether this was Gray’s idea, a toboggan slide was constructed in the early 1920s along the northeastern edge of the park. It only lasted until 1929. The city tore it down and used some of the lumber to build a foot bridge over the creek in the park. Except for the toboggan slide, the recreational features were in the flatter, southern half of the park.

The northern half of the park, with its meandering creek lined with cottonwoods and willows, and gentle slopes dotted with a variety of evergreens and hardwoods, conforms to the pleasure ground model. (It also has proven to be a great site for a disc golf course.)

The scene is not natural — it has been composed — but like a good work of art, it commands attention. Today, if you pause along Parkhill Drive when no one else is around and lapse into a daydream while gazing at the trees and rolling hills, you can thank Dorothy Gray for transporting you.

Shakespeare in the Park

A crowd gathers to watch actors perform a scene from Henry IV Part 1 during Shakespeare in the Park in Pioneer Park in 2019.

She knew how to instill a sense of tranquility. In the Billings High School yearbook of 1914, next to Gray’s senior photo is the quote: “In her quietness there is a charm.” The quote probably revealed more about the prejudice that prevailed against unquiet women than it did about Gray’s character. But applied to her park, it fits.

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