At the corner of South 27th Street and Minnesota Avenue sits what is likely the oldest building in Billings, one of the last connections to the abandoned town of Coulson and a symbol of the railroad’s might.
The building is vacant and nameless, unlike other prominent downtown locations. (Think the Kress or Hart-Albin buildings.) Nevertheless, the building has a deep history as the mercantile store owned by Coulson founder P.W. “Bud” McAdow, and current owner Karl Morledge wants it to remain a part of the future.
“It’s a labor of love to me. When I bought it, it was all run down ... It’s a nice old building,” said Morledge, of Billings, who bought the building about a decade ago.
A sign outside the building at 2702 Minnesota Ave., proclaims it’s Billings’ oldest, although most historical accounts hedge their bets a little, stating only it was among the first few to open in the newly formed city in 1882.
In its later years, the building was home to an adult video store, a second-hand store and an art gallery. In the frontier days, it represented the changing fortunes of the Yellowstone Valley when McAdow gave up on his dream of Coulson as a thriving city and followed prevailing economic winds into Billings.
McAdow was a capitalist of the prairie, chasing fortune at gold rushes at Gold Creek, Bannack and Alder Gulch before founding Montana Territory’s first grist mill in the Gallatin in the 1865, according to the Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board.
He established Coulson on the northern bank of the Yellowstone River with visions of becoming a transportation hub.
The city was even named after a head of a steamship company to attract business, and McAdow was angling for Northern Pacific to build tracks through there, author Carroll Van West wrote in “Capitalism on the Frontier: Billings and the Yellowstone Valley in the Nineteenth Century.”
Coulson was a booming frontier town for 20 years, but McAdow’s dream of a regional hub was never realized. The tracks were built farther north, creating the foundation of Billings and draining the life from Coulson.
McAdow, however, would not go down with the ship. He moved his trade store in 1882 from Coulson to Minnesota Avenue to sell supplies along the rail route, according to Van West.
But McAdow, ever the entrepreneur, made the shop successful but also he wanted to build new flour and woolen mills, according to Van West. He was rebuffed by financiers, and his attempt to buy into the Minnesota and Montana Land Improvement Co. that brokered most properties was shot down, Van West wrote.
The town belonged to founder Frederick Billings now, and McAdow couldn’t match the East Coast railroader’s wealth and connections, Van West wrote. McAdow sold most of his Billings property, including the mercantile store on Minnesota Avenue, to pursue mining opportunities in Central Montana.
“Billings was now Frederick’s town; perhaps McAdow, as the founder of Coulson, a territorial representative, and later a partner of (businessman) Heman Clark’s, found that hard to accept. Or perhaps he wanted to leave for another frontier community where once again Bud McAdow could call the shots and serve as the leading entrepreneur,” Van West wrote.
The city of Billings grew around McAdow’s old store, but the glass storefront remained in place. In recent years, it was best known as Buster’s Junk Shop, a second-hand store that opened in 1999.
For the past year, the building was home to the Big Sky Blue Gallery, where owner Dana Zier displayed her own work and that of other Western artists. Zier had done some renovation work, including the installation of hardwood floors.
She closed the Billings gallery in November and relocated to Bridger, where her family had homesteaded in the late 19th century.
Morledge said he’d like to bring the same kind of tenant, another gallery. He’s had a few calls in the past month, but nothing serious.
“I’d like to keep it artistic,” he said.
Morledge is putting a new mark on the old store. Perhaps that’s how Bud McAdow’s legacy will live on.