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"Movers and Shakers": Exploring the history of Billings' Clark Avenue

301 Clark, Western Heritage Center Photograph.jpg
John and Martha Link 142 Clark - Western Heritage Center Photograph.jpg
Posted at 12:12 PM, Mar 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-23 14:52:51-04

BILLINGS - Most people in Billings know the infamous Clark Avenue, nestled west of Division Street, as “Halloween Row,” but this street is truly where families who built Billings grew their families and businesses.

On a snowy, sunny March day, Lauren Hunley is walking among the historic homes on Clark Avenue talking excitedly about the history of each. But some are more notable than others.

“We’re standing where the movers and shakers of Billings lived,” she says.

Sure, most know of the Moss family, who served as the pioneers of Billings, but from there popped up more luxurious homes in the 1900s in the same area of town.

“These people who build their homes here, they are the people who invested the money,” said Hunley. “These are the people who started the businesses that then started all the opportunities for Billings.”

It starts with 33 Clark Avenue, which stands now and is home to the Moss Mansion carriage house where Hunley says Billings’ first known Black American lived.

“In the Moss records, they talk about a man they hired, who went by the name George Barry,” she said. “That gives us a man working hard, of color, living on the block from the very beginning.”

Just across the street at 44 Clark is the childhood home of an icon, Ethel Hays.

Kansas City MO Nana's Studio-Babs  Dottie 1933, Ethel Hays, Courtesy of the Ethel Hays Simm's family collection.jpg

“She goes on to become one of the highest-paid newspaper cartoonists of the 1920s and is responsible for the flapper image,” Hunley said.


Across the street from Hays’ home stands the iconic pink Victorian Queen Anne, which was home to I.D. O’Donnell. This home was built directly after the Moss Mansion in 1903.

“So, I.D. O’Donnell was called the Alfalfa king. He is the father of Montana agriculture,” said Hunley. “He is the father of the Huntley Project.”

The home has stayed in the family, and KTVQ has covered quite a few stories onGeorge Wallis who lived in the home as the oldest former Montana State football player until his death in December of 2022.

The O’Donnell house and the H.W Rowley house, just across the street with a big brick fence around the perimeter, served as a touchy symbol. Hunley says the O’Donnell family used to keep livestock as a part of their agriculture business and Rowley built the fence to keep them out.

“In keeping with his livestock interest they kept a lot of livestock, they had sheep and chickens and geese and everything,” said Hunley.

Along the street, a variety of architectural marvels: a classic Colonial, Victoria Queen Annes, a handful of craftsmen.

“It’s the only English Tudor in the neighborhood,” said Hunley, pointing to a corner home along the street with defined brown lines and brick bordering the lower half.

But of all the history in the neighborhood, Hunley says, unlike North Elevation, Clark Avenue isn’t a residential district on the historic registry, even though it could surely qualify because of its history.

“You must take minute measurements of every building in the neighborhood. So it requires significant property buy-in and this neighborhood has never been able to get property owner buy-in on the project,” she said.

Hunley says if that were to happen the district would likely end at Third Street West, where a beautiful, white Greek Revival currently stands, a place many flock to for its involved Halloween decorations during October.

Hunley says the original family started a massive lumber operation, supplying much of the timber for the rest of the homes in the neighborhood.

It also boosts a widow’s walk, most known as a feature on coastal homes.

“The legend behind the widow walk is when a woman’s husband goes off to sea, you go up and walk the upper roof or the porch line looking for his ship to come in and when it never does, it’s the origin of many ghost stories,” she said.

All these homes are maintained and celebrated well into the modern day, making Clark Avenue a coveted neighborhood and attraction.

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An old home on Clark Avenue