Billings, Montana—History by Mystery

imageI didn’t set out to just up and explore factoids of Billings, Montana, where my grandmother grew up. No, it sort of seeped in on me gradual.

First, I’ve been reading those letters from time to time (and describing my research methods). There’s a whole slew of them written from Billings. The news and tidbits (and clippings) has driven me to find out more about Billings, Montana. The letters drive the research, and the research informs the letters.

My great-grandmother in Billings wrote to her two daughters, Florence and Doris, in Boston. Florence is my grandmother, Doris my great aunt. I have Florence’s collection of letters. But the photos you see here are from Doris’s scrapbook. The fetching young woman with the 10-gallon hat is Doris. She was a horsewoman and a painter.

Panorama of Billings. 1915. Click to enlarge


Both girls were born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but their Papa got work that vaguely had to do with the railroad. They lived first in Minneapolis, and then in Billings, Montana. By the time the correspondence with the girls began, no mention was made of the railroad, but the occasional letter from Papa was typed on the stationery of an Automobile company. Letters from Mama talking about money matters suggest that Papa worked to keep their books.

imageAfter high school, Doris went away to Boston to study at Fenway Art Institute. In 1916, Florence went away to Boston to study at MIT—Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They lived together in Boston, so some of the letters in my possession from Mama were addressed “Dear Girls.” I’ve previously posted a letter and a newspaper clipping that tells how the flu in 1918 was handled. Vick’s VapoRub was da bomb back then.

Here’s that gal from Billings posing as a model for her fellow Fenway Art Institute art students in Boston. What an exotic young western woman!


History by Mystery

The path of knowledge about Billings is a meandering one. My research is driven by the letters, and the questions that arise as I read them. I’m doing city history by mystery.

Billings Birds Eye View. 1904. Click to enlarge.

I was overcome by curiosity about the addresses on the letters. Next to the date, many letters say “4 Stapleton Block.” What is the Stapleton Block? And why the different address? I have a couple of early letters addressed to Florence in Spring, 1916, before she left for MIT. The “home” address is ### Clarke Avenue. If that is a second address, what is its purpose? Was it from a move (downsizing?) or was this a business location or some regular hangout?

A search for Stapleton Block led this this overview of historic downtown Billings, which contains a place called the Stapleton Building. [note, long after posting. The site went away, so the link now goes to the Internet archive version]

A sign of changing times, Guy Stapleton & Son broke ground on Dec 8, 1904 for a large store, after clearing away the old Cothron & Todd stable. The growing Hart-Albin store (founded in 1902 at 2617 Montana) was to occupy the ground floor of this “monster building of four stories.” The move was in part calculated to take best advantage of the consistent northward trend in downtown expansion.

(Further searches on the web reveal that the Stapleton Building is yet again the focus of real estate attention. Right now, you can purchase a condominium [pdf] in the Stapleton Building. Old! Historic! Kewl!)

Now, here’s the fun part—right after I read about the buildings and the downtown, the next day I read another letter in the collection. Written by Fannie my great-grandmother, to her daughter, Florence. The date was near the 4th of July in 1917. Among other things, Fannie tells her daughter news of a fire. [this] burned and [that] burned. (I don’t have the letter in front of me right now) After that foray into historic downtown Billings, I had more of a sense what building was what. The fire had a bit more context.

The Historic Downtown Overview mentions the boom time of Montana. Two events transpired in 1909—the Great Northern Railway came to Billings. And Congress passed a new homestead act—the Enlarged Homestead Act—which doubled the acreage available for homesteading. Hello, boomtown!

In the five years that followed [1909], 10,000 homestead claims were filed in the Billings Land Office, and an estimated 30-40,000 people moved onto the agricultural frontiers of eastern Montana. Outside of town, some 100,000 acres were put into cultivation, while greater Yellowstone County reported 21⁄2 million dry acres were tilled for homestead farms. By the 1910 census, Billings’ population had shot to 10,031 ranking it the 6th fastest growing community in the nation. In 1920, the census numbered 15,100 in town; and in 1930, the number had crept to 16,332.


My great-grandparents were not farm folk. They lived in town. But this boom—combined with knowldge gleaned from a book on Montana in the 20th Century*  that the Great Northern Railway runs from Minneapolis to parts west, including Billings, explains the family’s migration west—something I’d wondered about. I have a letter written in 1906 from Papa home to his daughter—he writes from St. Paul, and is away on business. My mother tells me they moved to Minneapolis, then Billings. There are no letters between 1906 and 1916. I must guess the whys and wherefores. The boom that began in 1909 makes complete sense—it describes what made it possible for a man to move his family west to Billings, Montana.

This gem of a web page contained further revelations that explained contents of letters—contents that needed no explanation because they were just understood. Recall that mention of the Auto Company that’s on the stationery of my great-grandfather’s letters. I don’t know how he came to work for that particular company, or what, exactly he did. But here’s a clue about the larger context in boom-times. Here’s an explanation of the industry that employed a man.

Automotive businesses proliferated. Soon, auto showrooms, tire shops, service stations, garages, even auto wrecking companies, were squeezing out the horse and buggy set. Agricultural equipment became mechanized, and threshers and tractor dealers staked out space in the warehouse zone.

Booster! Boom! Drought! Buster… er, Bust

At my local library, I chanced upon a book called Twentieth Century Montana: A State of Extemes, by R. Ross Toole (Univ of Oklahoma Press). The 1972 book is a narrative of early Montana history culled from a number of doctoral disserations. It paints pictures of that early boom, complete with detailed descriptions of the Dry Farming Technique—the new agricultural rage that helped fuel the homesteader boom (no irrigation necessary; grow crops from rainfall).


And oh, there was boosterism! If you think marketing was invented yesterday—(or the day before yesterday)—think again. Toole counts on his fingers the various interests and associations that want to bring in more farmers to Montana—Chamber of Commerces, Railroads, Bankers, State PR departments. Come on over! The conditions are lovely, wish you were here. Toole parsed the propaganda disseminated by the railroads to entice people to move to Billings.  Train fare from St. Paul to Billings: $22.50

The railroad companies were less liars than the chamber of commerces and the Montana Bureau of Labor, Agriculture, and Industry. What did they most lie about? Rainfall, temperatures, and cost of living. Come to our boomtown! It’s wonderful! You need not fear drought Your yields will double! Come one! Come all! 
Come on people! (suckers!) [While writing this post, I just discovered an online article  that draws on Toole’s work and others to describe this boomtime..and what happened later]

Side note: the larger context of this boosterism makes me a bit more skeptical of the idyllic claims of Huerfano County in a lovely little 1915-era pamphlet that made its way to me through this very site. Perhaps it’s an overly-rosey enticement to bring more people west? These boosters underwrote the costs of demonstration farms, where the new techniques could be tested.

In my letter reading, I’d no sooner encountered discussion of Homesteading, Dryfarming, and demonstration farms, but I picked up another letter in the collection. Mama writes news to her daughter, Florence—we did this and that and the other, oh and we went to see a demonstration farm.

Here’s the boom—wheat commanded extremely high prices in 1914-1917 or so, while Europe was at war. Farm production there was down, but the people still needed to eat. Hello, Montana homestead-grown wheat! Good times. The rainfall was good, too.


I can’t speak to the difference between the propaganda numbers about rainfall and the actual rainfall. But it was enough, up until 1917.

Then the drought hit.

It started in the north of Montana, in 1917. In 1918, it spread east and south to Yellowstone County (Billings is the seat of that county). In 1919, the Billings Chamber of Commerce talked down the drought, saying that some were “discouraged by grossly exaggerated reports of failure and ruin in this state.” The Minneapolis Daily news “pooh-poohed the drought” and told people to hang on and have stiff upper lips. [Toole, pp. 78-80] After all, Dry Farming techniques will see you through. We told you so. We’re right. Are you goign to believe us or your own lying eyes?

The drought worsened, and so began an exodus of farmers who were ruined by the drought. It started in the fall of 1917. By the summer of 1918 it was well underway. By summer of 1919 it was a flood.

1920 saw the final insult, which didn’t begin in Montana, but Europe. (who says that globalization is new?) By 1920, Europe’s recovery from WW1 resulted in renewed agricultural output. The price of wheat fell. Down. Hard.

Between the years of 1920 and 1926, over half of Montana’s banks failed. (The combined failure rate of Montana and South Dakota was 70%.)


“Once [the bank failure] had started, it spread like the drought. Those whom the banker owed called for payment” so then he called the notes of his borrowers, which led to foreclosure. Depositers were nervous and withdrew their funds. Eastern depositers, especially. The rush of calls for withdrawl led the bankers to divert their assets to cash. The money fled east. Over $30 million dollars of it. [Toole, p. 87]

And so, collapse. This pre-dates the New York Stock Exchange black Friday of 1929. It echoes it, though—the hype. High prices. Which then fall. And take so many more with it.

I mentioned already that my ancestors weren’t farmers. But they could not be unaffected by this. And my mother has described a mystery, how something happened and her grandfather (written of here as Papa) had big money troubles. I have letters dated around 1925 or 1926 where the daughters in the East are sending money to their father. Could his troubles be related to the bank collapse? Were his funds deposited in a bank that failed and his money disappeared? I do not know, but my history by mystery suggests a possible explanation.


About the illustrations—After Doris went to school in the East, and lived with her sister Florence and her husband in Schenectady for a time (Doris also worked at the General Electric Company), she moved back west to Montana, creating illustrations for magazines. She illustrated a book called Rusty Pete (that’s Pete she’s wrestling with in the image. The back has the caption “Pete and I have the usual argument”) These photos come from her scrapbook; there’s a section about Montana from which these are excerpted.


I composed this post at my mother and father’s house, while sitting at or near Florence’s desk. Nearby is a picture that Doris painted. This has nothing to do with Billings, but it had to be said.


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 01, 2008 in • Letters in the AtticPersonal History
24 CommentsPermalink

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Boy have I missed you!

An absolutely brilliant post. Loved the photographs and illustrations as well as the information. Just got back from Montana and can tell you that the extremes in weather can occur in a matter of moments.

Have you tried the Sanborn maps? I found wonderful information in them of the time period my GGGrandfather Campbell was a sheriff in Missouri.

So glad to hear from you! Can’t wait for more.


footnoteMaven  on 05/03  at  03:11 PM

Thanks, fM—It’s nice to sink my teeth into a fun post.

I was making many of those Billings “OMG! you don’t say!” discoveries during the time that ended up being my, well, temporary drought in posting. (work work work, personal family eldercare/health issues, an obsession with politics and political blogs and the other stuff of life that kept me out of these parts for a while.) When I saw this topic for CoG—especially given my Montana explorations, I said, That’s it. I’m in.

So Montana is classed as one of those “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes” sorts of places, eh?

Where in Montana were you?

(BTW, I totally recommend that Toole book. Kinda mindboggling to think that a scholarly work of 1972 stands almost half way between the Depression and the current day. That one still makes me shake my head.)

Susan A. Kitchens  on 05/03  at  04:10 PM

We had sleet, hail and a heavy snowfall all within fifteen minutes. The next day we saw the sun.

You know that old Montana joke - What are you going to do this summer? It depends on whether it falls on a weekend or during the week.

We were in Charlo above Missoula, near the National Bison Range.


footnoteMaven  on 05/03  at  05:51 PM

I loved your article - especially the photo of Doris with the whip.  And they say the French have panache . . .  Doesn’t hold a candle to these ladies. 

I’m glad you still have many of her illustrations.  I’d love to see more!

Denise  on 05/04  at  02:23 AM

There’s more to scan from her scrapbook. A whole section on the Blackfoot Indians. More horses. And some fun hijinks while at Fenway Art Institute. I could also clean up the entire page on which that photo falls, it’s part of a collage of photos. (Tis already scanned)

My mom remembers Doris as this totally awsome, rad, kewl, exotic aunt, whose letters were dotted with sealing wax.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 05/04  at  07:19 AM

Susan - was excited to read your post.  I also have tons of letters dating from the early 1900s & will read your other posts on your research methods in hopes to get some ideas on how to compile all my grandparents’ letters into some sort of book.

Wendy Littrell  on 05/04  at  03:45 PM

I just love Aunt Doris.

Miss Havisham  on 05/04  at  08:08 PM

Thanks for this fantastic webpage.  I got on to read about oral history tips/techniques/recording equipment, and got sidetracked by the neat information about your grandparents in Billings.  I grew up in Billings myself, on the 400 block of Lewis Avenue (one street away from Clark, which is probably the same as your “Clarke” Ave. address.)  The house I grew up in was built around 1900, and I used to ride my bike up and down Clark.  Neat neighborhood.
  I also appreciated the dryland farming info, and will check out the book you mentioned.  My great-grandparents also came west on the railroad and were dryland farmers near Baker and Ekalaka.  Now I’ve got a part-time job as a historic guide at James J. Hill’s mansion in St. Paul (he ran the Great Northern) and I’m even more interested in railroad history.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing all this, and for the well-built site.  It’s wonderful!

Julia Iverson  on 05/05  at  04:24 AM


As usual you write a delightful story.  I loved the photographs!  “Pete” reminds me of my horse “Teddy.” I had to stay away from anything edible while I was riding him, as he always wanted to stop to eat.


Janice Brown  on 05/05  at  06:13 AM

@ Wendy, I hope my post helps. I should add a postscript to that entry (I’ll say it here, too). I’ve begun a second set of index card collection. Standard size and yellow (for ease of distinction). On those, I write the city and state at the top, and each yellow index card is for a PLACE. and then I cross reference the letter by my year-month-date routine. As in, some church in Boston:

Boston, MA

Old Church, Boston
mentioned in 1917-04-06 from [name of letter writer]

If the church is mentioned again, I keep adding to the index card other references to it.

I began that 2nd set so that I could easily look up places. When grouped by place, I figure that if I take a trip to Billings, or Boston, I can pull those cards for that city and then do research on the places mentioned. Like I said originally, I could do all that digitally, but I want to read the letters wherever I want to read the letters, and writing stuff by hand is A Very Good and Easy Thing.

@Miss Havisham—thanks for visiting! smile

@Julia—Glad you stopped by. What a coincidence about Billings and St. Paul!! I was just looking at a map of Billings last night, and yes, it’s probably spelled Clark -sans-E. I noticed that Lewis street is one over from Clark. (Oh, I get it now!) I think they were on the 300 block. (I write this away from my letter collection that has exact numbers, so all I can offer are guesses.

Wow, the museum in St. Paul! Wow. I promise much more than I can deliver, but perhaps I can scan the letters sent from Papa to his daughter in 1906 for the museum. The stationery was from some hotel in St. Paul. He worked doing something for the railroad. But like I said I know not what. So glad you stopped by and commented.

@Janice: I have no idea if eating is the nature of the “usual argument” that Doris had with Pete. I just had it down to equine cussedness. Your comment adds possible color to it. (Oh speaking of color, I colorized that photo)

Susan A. Kitchens  on 05/05  at  09:11 AM

This is a wonderful piece and I can relate to wanting to know more about a place from hints left in the letters. I have been looking at histories of Kansas and Deadwood, SD since I started reading my letters.

Your index card system is fantastic! Why didn’t I think of that? I’ve been struggling with how to find letters again that I remember as having information referred to in latter letters.

Apple  on 05/11  at  03:56 AM


I don’t know if someone has mentioned this to you before, but this is a book.

A book I would gladly buy. Please get cracking on it. Yesterday I went to a conference of research scholars at The Huntington Library-so I am full of myself today.

Many accolades to you for your scholarly research.


Miss Havisham  on 05/11  at  09:21 AM

@Apple—So glad the index card system is of some help. I was thinking database-like, and what I’d want to have in my letter metadata. Plus, I get to arrange the cards in a more chronological order than I find the letters themselves.

Kansas… Kansas, I seem to recall that Pioneer Women, a book of letters about the settling of the midwest, is essentially a story about Kansas. I hope I’m right. Have you seen? and Read? Editor is Joanna Stratton. She completes a task begun by her grandmother—compiling an anthology of letters/essays written by women about the settling of Kansas. Essential reading. If you have it already, I bet you’re nodding your head. If not, get thee to a source of it now.

@ Miss Havisham—thank you and bless you. Yes, I know there’s a book in there. There’s a book in the letters. One day on the fone with my mother, she says, “But Susan, you don’t need to go to all this trouble for me.” My response: “You? For you? Nuh uh. I’m doing this for me. My next book is in those letters.”

Your comment tho cheered me tremendously, because the work is a long, slow slog (slower now that there are lots of parental health matters to be taken care of). Voluntary declarations stated in Champion-Encouraging tense are a gift. A true gift, gratefully received. Hey, ya wanna come over and look through Doris’ album? And I wanna hear all about the Huntington ‘do, too.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 05/11  at  03:58 PM

I really enjoyed reading this.  This probably won’t help with your history by mystery, but Ivan Doig has written some phenomenal books about his family’s settling in Montana. English Creek and Dancing at the Rascal Fair are the first two of a trilogy concerning their homesteading.  I just finished reading The Whistling Season which is about a family of dry? farmers.  Excellent stuff.  For when you get some free time smile


Chris  on 05/15  at  11:36 AM


I so enjoyed your article.  I was born and raised in Billings in 1932.  So I do date back a little.  I so enjoyed your pictures.  My father worked for Hart Albin for many years.  I knew Russ Hart and B. R. Albin quite well.

Roger Pfeil

Roger Pfeil  on 01/21  at  04:59 PM

Just a note to tell you how very much I enjoyed your work.  The reason that I found your work was that I was looking for the date that the Hart Albin company was formed.  My father worked for this company for many years.  I was born in Billings in 1932 so I remember the old buildings that you mentioned.  Your work is truly amazing.

Roger Pfeil

Roger Pfeil  on 01/22  at  12:15 PM

Roger, Thanks for stopping by! That’s SO cool that you know Hart Albin. I know I have SOMETHING in that collection of letters that has Hart Albin on it. Stationery? Advertisements? Can’t recall offhand.

Are you still in Billings? I hope to get there for a research trip before too too too terribly long. The first (and last) time I was in Montana was in 1981. So I’m due for another trip.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 01/23  at  01:41 AM

Thank you so much for that trip to Billings. I hope that you continue this and heed the advice of a few earlier posters to write a book.
My grandfather, Samuel Hall Peckham owned Rocking Horse Stables and was a transplanted Cowboy from Cape Cod, Mass. He arrived somewhere in the mid to late 1930’s and appears to have hung around the rodeo quite a bit. He was friends with all the popular rodeo stars of the day (Alice Greenough, Parsons….)
He had a very unique leather bound photo album that he stuffed full of memorabilia of that time, pix, news clippings, ads, fliers..
Would love to share these with you..I know you’d love ‘em.
Thank you for your story.
Michael Brown

Michael Brown  on 06/09  at  08:33 PM


No, I do not live in Billings now.  I worked for Lockheed in Sunnybale, CA for many years.  I might point out to you that the Stapleton Building was an old building housing offices on the upper floors.  I think D.J Colle was on the ground floor.  My dentist was on the upper floors.  The elevator was a collector`s item having open grill work sides and counter weights that you could se3e go by as you ascended.  OSHA would never allow this today.  On May 12, 1937 Billings flooded and the basements of the downtown buildings filled with water.  It was a mess and although I was very young I remember it vividly..

Roger Pfeil  on 06/11  at  07:08 PM

My father had an office in the Stapleton Building on the 3rd floor as I recall in the late 1950s.  I remember the old open grill elevator.  It required an operator who would move a lever back and forth to go up and down.

My father always referred to it as an ” old firetrap” and would be surprised that it is still standing.

Mike Jahrig  on 07/20  at  07:28 AM

Susan, I am researching Margaret and Malcolm A McNaughton who moved from St Paul, Minn to Billings, Montana during the boom time. Are there are references to a Laut or a Mcnaughton in the letters?

Valerie Legge  on 06/18  at  09:47 AM

Hi, Valerie, thanks for stopping by. I haven’t been actively spending time in the letters recently, so I can’t say offhand.

When I was working with the letters, I started to index for names of people mentioned, so there’s a slight chance that those names might be among the ones I noted. Too, there are so many more letters to go through when I come back to them in earnest. I’ll keep this in mind for when I get back to it (oh, those lovely round tuits!) and will get in touch if I do come across any mention.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 06/18  at  09:56 AM

My grandfather ran off to Billings at age 11 (1884) from New Brunswick, Canada. The notion of an adventurous life under the Big Sky beckoned probably via dime store novels of the day.  He worked as a hand on a sheep ranch for some years. As a boy I remember pictures of him with his horse somewhere on the flats. Also a posed photo of him seated in a bar getting his boots polished (which I’m sure was contrived for a small fee).
Your website is very informative and a joy to read. Thank you.

G. D. L. Shaffer  on 01/06  at  09:56 AM

My father was Lawrence Munns born March 14,1918 from Billings, Montana.  His parents were Charles or Lee and Lydia Munns.  They were homesteaders and from the photos were in a very remote location.  My father rode his horse 5 miles to school each day. 
Does anyone have any memory of this family?  Siblings were Howard and Pauline.  Thank you!

Chris Upton  on 04/04  at  05:09 AM

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