Property for sale carries lots of early-Billings memories

There’s plenty of land for sale on the far West End of Billings, but few parcels pack as much history as a 3½-acre lot on the southwest corner of Shiloh Road and Central Avenue.

On that property sits a 122-year-old one-room schoolhouse built by some of the city’s pioneer families, as well as a building that housed School District 2’s first vo-tech program.

The last business there was Cetrone Studio and Garden for Photography, which Mark and Lisa Cetrone moved to 5545 Hennessey Road three years ago and renamed Mark Cetrone Photography. The family is selling the property through Coldwell Banker.

Mark and his father, Gene Cetrone, opened the studio at Central and Shiloh in 1988, moving there from 2315 Broadwater Ave. Gene Cetrone said by email from Guatemala, where he spends part of the year, that he had had hopes of selling the schoolhouse separately, for a nominal fee, to anyone willing to move it off the site.

But Mark Cetrone said it has been determined that moving it is no longer possible, given water damage to the building. Still, he said, the schoolhouse has some fine old pieces of wood, some of them quite large, that would be worth salvaging, and the larger building, which housed the photo business, has some beautiful rough-hewn 2-by-14 floor joists.

If and when the property is sold and the buildings are demolished or dismantled, a good bit of west Billings history will be gone, too.

According to a story that ran in the Billings Gazette on July 11, 1991, on the occasion of an all-school reunion, the one-room Shiloh School was built in 1894 and originally had just seven students. They attended school for five months a year—2½ months in the spring and 2½ months in the fall—according to a history of the school written by Charles Zimmerman, one of its first students.

The school was founded by Zimmerman’s father, Frank, and other pioneers, and it was named after the great Civil War Battle of Shiloh. In cold weather, the first person to arrive for school in the morning was responsible for starting a fire in the school’s wood stove.

The Gazette article says there used to be a wooden shed behind the school where the young pupils put up the horses they rode to school. The school was lit with kerosene lamps and pupils used an outdoor privy.

A larger school was constructed in 1919, a little to the west of the one-room school, and was for first- through eighth-graders. It had indoor plumbing and gas lights. It is not clear what the one-room schoolhouse was used for after the newer building opened.

Gene Cetrone, a former School District 2 teacher, said the school eventually became part of the district, and the Gazette article said the larger building served as the first home for the Billings Vocational Technical Center.

The property was later sold to a developer who converted the bigger building into six apartments. That owner eventually went bankrupt, Cetrone said, and he bought the property from a bank.

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

A larger school was built on the site in 1919, and years later it became School District 2’s first Vocational Technical Center.

At his previous location on Broadwater Avenue, Cetrone said, he had built a “portrait park” that he believes was the first of its kind in the country. After moving out to Shiloh and Central, he had more room and built another portrait park that was even better than the original.

Cetrone said he hired Billings artist and garden designer Dick Eyers, a “talented, self-taught genius,” to design the basic garden, and the Cetrones continued making improvements over the years. At one point the Cetrones won a “Billings Bright and Beautiful” award for their work.

Mark Cetrone remembers taking a lot of time and trouble to create a straw-filled adobe wall around much of the photography garden behind the studio.

Father and son worked together at the Shiloh studio until 1994, when Gene Cetrone retired for health reasons.

Gene Cetrone said it was inevitable that they would eventually move out of the Shiloh studio, which has sat on “a major, high-traffic thoroughfare” since Shiloh Road was substantially upgraded.

When he bought the property just 28 years ago, he said, it “was still very much out in the country.”

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