Something lost: Memories of an earlier, freer Heights

Sartorie

Phoebe Tollefson

Mike Sartorie is finishing his 35th—and final year— farming in the Heights.

Editor’s note: This is the third piece in a three-day series looking what has been lost as Billings has grown steadily in recent decades. Over the past two days, Phoebe Tollefson wrote about the South Side and the West End. Today she takes a look at the Heights.

The apartment complexes, strip malls, big box stores and houses in the Heights cover some of the most fertile soil in the Yellowstone River valley. And they have transformed one Billings native’s favorite boyhood camping spots.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Ben Laws Jr., who now lives in Texas, used to tromp around the Heights with his Boy Scout troop. It was just a short drive from Laws’ home and, at the time, open and wild enough to be considered the outdoors.

On one trip to the Yellowstone River near Two Moon Park, Laws’ fellow Boy Scouts learned just how raw the place was, after stumbling upon a small section of grass-covered ground that sounded hollow.

“You know, walking around the ground,” Laws said, taking a few stomps to re-enact the scene, “it’s like, ‘There’s something under here!’”

Someone had dug out a spot underneath a nondescript part of the river bank, built a trap door over it and filled it with stolen goods: televisions, radios and other household valuables.

The boys told Laws’ father, who was the scoutmaster.

“They got the sheriff involved, they staked it out, and actually caught these guys,” Laws said, laughing.

In another adventure, this time near the Warfield Ranch off Alkali Creek Road, Laws’ friends were playing near a stand of trees and came across a body placed in a tree, which they believed was a Native American burial site. The Scouts reported their finding to the Yellowstone Historical Society, but Laws never heard what became of the body.

Laws moved away from Billings in 1963 and a large portion of the Heights was annexed in the 1980s, spurring yet more commercial and housing development. Driving the area now, Laws would be hard-pressed to find many similarities between the adventure spots of his youth and today’s Heights, which has outgrown Kalispell by over 2,000 residents.

Around the same time Laws and his buddies were camping in the Heights, Bill Kennedy was spending summer afternoons visiting his extended family.

“In the early ’60s, we would go out and it would be the country,” said Kennedy, a former Yellowstone County commissioner and now president of the MSUB Foundation.

Kennedy grew up in town but had relatives living on truck farms on both the east and west sides of Main Street. “The Bench,” Kennedy said, was the name for everything east of Main.

Kennedy especially liked visiting one uncle’s melon patch.

“We would go out there and he would bend over, grab a cantaloupe, in his hand like that—they all had big hands—and grab the cantaloupe. He would brush it off, open it up, slice you off a slice, give it to you,” he said, reveling in the memory. “Your face would be dirty, you would be sticky, but you know what? Some of the best fruit around.”

Melons

Bill Kennedy\’s great-aunt, Archangela Cucciardi, sells melons at her stand in the Bench, circa 1930s.

Another uncle farmed land on the west side of Main Street, where a Wal-Mart store is today. That family made their own wine and would treat visitors to a glass, or drink some during a break on hot days spent in the field.

Kennedy said it would have been better if Billings had developed northward, west of Main Street, and left the portion east of Main Street agricultural, given its rich soil and its proximity to the river.

Like Gabel on the West End, Mike Sartorie would no doubt have preferred this. The story of farmland loss that is still playing out on Billings’ far West End is almost complete in the Heights.

Sartorie, who is a third-generation local farmer like Gabel, can stand in the middle of his family’s 15-acre pumpkin patch east of Main Street, turn in a circle and see buildings everywhere: subdivisions, standalone houses and the city’s new Medicine Crow Middle School.

Sartorie, in his 35th and final year of farming, said he’s stayed in the game longer than he should have.

Quitting will likely lead to a rapid turnover of the Heights area land he leases to farm, he said. The tax break his landlords get from the agricultural classification make it affordable for them to keep the land, he suspects, and without that, they’ll need to sell.

But Sartorie is relieved to be done farming. Growing crops in an urban setting had its share of difficulties, including dealing with crop thefts and an overall lack of the support that farmers in rural communities enjoy.

Being a “lone gun” farmer surrounded by residents, Sartorie has felt obligated to shut his tractor off at night, even when he wasn’t finished working his crops, in order to maintain quiet hours.

Sartorie remembers when Main Street was just two lanes. He used to back out of his driveway onto Hawthorne Lane without looking for traffic.

Soon, however, contractors will begin tearing down a horse barn and other farm outbuildings on his property to make room for more houses in the Sartorie Subdivision. The family has sectioned off a corner of its land for this, and their plans to develop it date back to the 1970s. Sartorie said he and his parents saw change coming to the area a long time ago and chose to adapt, rather than fight the inevitable.

“You could say, ‘Well, I was here first,’” he said. “But in reality, that isn’t a very logical thought process, because you can’t stop progress. You just cannot do it.”

On Monday: On the South Side, memories of a different world.

On Tuesday: Expansion and change on the West End.

Phoebe Tollefson has written for outlets large and small, from McClatchy DC to The Sheridan Press. She lives in Billings, her hometown.

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