Editor’s note: This is the second piece in a three-day series looking what has been lost as Billings has grown steadily in recent decades. Yesterday Phoebe Tollefson wrote about the South Side. Today she takes a look at the West End.
In 1953, Veda Hentz moved into her new home on Rosewyn Lane, a few blocks east of Rehberg Lane. The area was mostly open countryside, and she and her husband were eager to settle in, having kept a close eye on the construction of the house.
“We watched it day by day,” she said, adding, “Seems like now it takes a week and you’ve got a house up.”
Hentz kept a garden and whenever there was a surplus of vegetables, corn especially, she’d take them around the corner to the Poly Food Basket, which set up shop that same year. She liked the semi-rural feel the place had.
The area’s appeal was similar for Peter and Suzanne Lombardozzi, who built their house farther south, on Patricia Lane, in 1959.
There were just a handful of other houses on the block at the time, and looking west past Rehberg Lane, the two saw only tracts of farmland. A dairy farm operated nearby, and cows and horses grazed in the area.
The Lombardozzis’ lot was in the county when they began building.
“We thought we were gonna cut a fat hog and cut our taxes,” Peter said.
But the city had annexed them by the time the house was complete. City workers paved the street and new neighbors began moving in.
“It got built up rather quickly,” Suzanne said.
Like most others who moved in, the Lombardozzis picked the area because it was cheap. But looking back they see a downside of moving there, pointing out that loss of farmland is the real story of Billings’ West End.
Everett Gabel, a third-generation sugar beet farmer, agrees.
Living in the same area southwest of the city limits his whole life, he watched for 75 years as it transformed from farmers’ domain to ground for new development.
Gabel’s house, which sits on 100 acres, is his second childhood home, having bought it from his parents. Within a mile of the property there is an indoor water park, Honda dealership, Harley Davidson dealership, two restaurants, a furniture store, sheet metal store, bus charter, industrial gas supplier, miniature golf and game center, computer repair store and a half-dozen industrial supply or service companies.
Growing up, Gabel said, the city appeared far away.
“Back in the ’50s, Billings didn’t put out much of a glow at night,” he said one day in mid-September, walking to his living room window to tug on the blinds.
“You better have these things shut at night,” he said.
A tractor dealership now stands on the site of Gabel’s first childhood home. St. Vincent Healthcare owns a plot of land near Shiloh Road and King Avenue West, where he used to grow malt barley and sugar beets. And this will be his final year farming land near near Mullowney Lane and Elysian Boulevard. That will be cleared for Harmony Meadows, a subdivision planned for 655 homes.
Billings has spread westward “hop, skip and jump” style, says Gabel, for whose family Gabel Road was named. It’s made him travel farther to and from the extra ground he leases in and around Billings to farm, and it’s brought in new neighbors who are sometimes impatient with the downsides of living next door to a farmer. When Gabel burns the grasses along irrigation ditches to improve water flow, smoke floats to nearby properties.
It’s also started a trend that can’t be undone. Subdividing leads to more subdividing, creating 10- and 20-acre plots that are perfect for city folk who crave a little countryside but unworkable for farmers. So developers do away with an irrigation ditch or two—ditches that replenish the groundwater—and water well levels start going down.
Wyeth Friday, interim director and planning division manager for Billings and Yellowstone County, called the subdivision activity west of Billings “self-perpetuating,” and “tough to watch.”
“You’ll see a lot of things where somebody says, ‘Well, I’m coming to develop these 10 acres,’” Friday said. “‘Subdivision, yeah, it’s prime ag land. But it’s only 10 acres and so it’s too small to really farm.’”
As available land becomes more scarce, Gabel faces the tough reality that all farmers face today: He needs to produce more to make a living. Gabel’s dad worked 100 acres. He’s had to farm 1,000.
In the past, Gabel fought any change that would take farmland out of production. He showed up at public meetings to protest the I-90 overpass at Zoo Drive. He grumbled as neighbors sold land to afford retirement or cheaper ground in rural communities.
But his views are changing.
Gabel no longer blames farmers for taking advantage of lucrative offers to sell.
With new businesses crowding him to the north, Gabel has rezoned his land from agricultural to light industrial. His immediate plans post-retirement are to lease his 100 acres to a turf farmer. He said he has no intention of selling the land, but if he gets deeper into retirement and someone offers him a high price, he might reconsider.
Gabel’s given years of thought to the problem of development pushing out farming, and for him, it’s as simple as it is unavoidable.
“Like I said,” he said with a shrug, “God don’t make any more ground.”
On Monday: On the South Side, memories of a different world.
Coming Wednesday: The march of progress in the Heights.
Phoebe Tollefson has written for outlets large and small, from McClatchy DC to The Sheridan Press. She lives in Billings, her hometown.