By Jeff Burns
What is there to do in Billings? There are actually a lot of great things to do for a history buff. At about 160,000 in population, Billings is the largest city in Montana and was founded as a railroad town in 1882. However, its history goes back many years before that. Lewis and Clark passed through the area and even named a nearby rock formation Pompey’s Rock, after Sacajawea’s son. The area has been occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years, and there are sites near the city that preserve ancient petroglyphs, evidence of their occupation.
During its early days, Billings was a rough and tumble town of the old west, where cowboys, miners, and railroaders blew off steam in saloons and brothels. The museums of Billings do a great job of telling the story of those eras, prehistoric and bawdy, along with the stories of the homesteaders and ranchers who eventually tamed the west.
We started our visit at the Western Heritage Cultural Center, located in a turn of the 20th century library building. It’s a good introduction to the area. Its rotating exhibits cover the natural history and cultural history of the region. It also serves as the repository of a great collection of Native American oral histories.
From there, it’s a few blocks to the Moss Mansion, built in 1903 by P.V. Moss, a businessman who basically owned Billings. He had huge a range of money-making interests including mining, railroads, agriculture, and electricity. The mansion now belongs to the city of Billings, and it is preserved as the Moss family lived in it, furnished with their belongings. It is one of the most elaborate and well-preserved house museums I’ve ever visited. As far as luxury goes, the Moss Mansion is much more luxurious than many would picture in the Old West.
If you fly into Billings, you don’t have to go far to see a great museum. The Yellowstone County Museum is on the airport property. Don’t be fooled by the small log cabin you see on the perimeter road. There is much more to see below. There are hundreds and hundreds of Indian artifacts as well as an exhibit on one of Billings’ famous residents Calamity Jane, but don’t forget to say hi to the two-headed calf.
In downtown Billings, there are a couple of great stores to explore. One is Native American Nations. There you will find a great assortment of Native American crafts and artifacts, and the selection and prices are both much better than any trading posts in the area. Be prepared to move into the Yesteryears Antique Mall. It is huge, and there is definitely something for you there. If you’re really into vintage clothing, check out the Montana Vintage Clothing store, practically next door to Yesteryear.