Pioneers of Eastern Montana and Their Descendants


Tribute to Vernon Drake 

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Past President – “Pioneers of Eastern Montana and Their Descendants”

(1922 – 2004)


[This Association is organized for the twofold purpose of preserving the history of the settlement and progress of Eastern Montana, and of promoting and preserving a brotherhood among those who were pioneers and bore apart in the civilization and up building of this portion of our grand commonwealth.]


Vernon’s ancestral past in Yellowstone County dates back to the early 1900’s.  Vernon’s family resided in a cabin on Washington St. until 1938.  Vernon’s father first homesteaded on 40 acres in the Huntley Project in 1907.  Later, about 1910 or 12 he took over the operation of his sister Mary’s' homestead on Duck Creek and this was her place. This was where the family was raised and lived until the spring of 1933, when they moved to a rented farm on the Big Ditch, located north of Laurel.  In the later 1920s Vernon purchased the Zim place, (320 acres) and farmed there before going to college. While as a youth he worked for Dr. W. A. Allen who had just discovered that a mineral clay substance (bentonite) near his Canyon Creek property would make an excellent toothpaste, face cream and other such preparations. Dr. Allen and Melville Moss established a joint venture to market the product. The success of this venture and his awareness to the local historical past created a fervent desire within in him to understand aged events and to help preserve them for all times. He was a true living legend of the high standards established for membership.





Here is what the Billings Gazette reported about him and his efforts to preserve the Parmly Library and reestablish it as the Western Heritage Center for future generations to enjoy. This is a reminder that what may seem to be an obvious historical gem takes work to save, and it must be made public, or it will be lost for future generations to appreciate.


 “Billings was founded in 1882. By 1890, there was an informal library club, which exchanged books.  That effort failed because it didn’t have a good system to return borrowed books. In 1895, the Billings City Council set aside part of the local property tax to support a library. The population grew from 3,221 in 1900 to 10,031 in 1910.  The Billings’ family took the initiative to approach the city about building a library to honor Parmly.  Parmly ’s father, Frederick, earlier had given money for the Congregational Church and the first schools in Billings. The elder Billings died in 1890, and his son, Frederick Billings Jr., a New York banker, was involved in details of the planning of the library building, approving of the furnishings and giving a local committee instruction to complete the building at 2822 Montana Ave.  The structure, 60 feet long and 50 feet deep with round towers in front, was to be built near the geographical center of the city along the Northern Pacific tracks, a newspaper noted. The library was built from sandstone quarried from the Rimrocks north of town on a granite base and red terra-cotta tiling. The interior had oak desks, bookcases and chairs. The cost of building originally was $10,000.  But, after Frederick Jr. suggested some changes, the cost went up to $15,000.  Oct. 1, 190 1, the day the library was dedicated at the opera house, turned into a holiday for the city.  Frederick Billings Jr. traveled to Montana for the library dedication.


Frederick Jr. told the crowd that the real gift he was giving was not the money for the library but the love he had for his brother.


The library started with enough shelves for 5,000 books but opened with fewer than 1,000 volumes.  Local residents donated many volumes. After the donated books were sorted, the library committee contracted Chapple Drug to order $3,000 worth of new books. They were to be ordered in $300 lots, so they wouldn’t overwhelm the librarian.  The Billings family continued its philanthropy to the library. A newspaper account from 1901 noted that Frederick Jr. would be shipping books and several pictures, including those of the Parthenon, Roman Coliseum and St. Peter’s Basilica.


An east wing funded by Frederick Billings Jr. was built in 1911 for a children’s room. A west wing funded by Parmly’s sister, Elizabeth Billings, was dedicated in 1923. With cases of artifacts, minerals, coins and animal mounts, the west wing was built as much for a museum as for library. Even with new additions, the library was obsolete by the 1940s.  Several plans for a new location for the library were discussed, including a suggestion in the 1960s by then Mayor Willard Fraser to build a new library at Cobb Field and move the athletic complex to the West End. A hardware building on North Broadway became available, and was a less-expensive alternative to constructing a new building.  After the library moved in 1969, the old building fell into disrepair and was scheduled to be torn down to make room for a parking lot.  Local architect Vernon Drake heard about the plans and organized a local group to talk Northern Pacific into donating the building and the Yellowstone County commissioners into accepting it. After part of Stella Foote’s collection of historical artifacts was moved into the building, the Western Heritage Center opened in 1971.”



These are the events leading up to the preservation and creation of the Moss Mansion as an entity for historic preservation, orchestrated by Vernon.


“As a small child coming to Billings from the Duck Creek ranch Vernon viewed the huge house with the high juniper hedge with awe and foreboding.  As a teen on a scavenger hunt one winter night his team fearfully rang the doorbell in the quest for a top hat, which was offered to them.  In the late 1960’s, as a member of the Billings Parks and Recreation Commission accompanied by Vern Prill and Rocky Brown, they studied how one day this durable and most visible reminder of the early days of this community could be permanently be preserved and placed in public ownership:  Others of the same opinion and goal were working independently. Vernon was a stalwart member of the Billings Historic Preservation Board, which was primarily focused on the Historic Commercial District but well aware of the need to expand their mission to include other historic structures.  Previously he had been evolved in the successful battles to save the old Chamber of Commerce Building  [now Walkers Grill] and the Parmly Billings Library, now called the Western Heritage Center.


In 1980, at a “set up” luncheon arranged by Senia Hart took place at the Northern Hotel, Vernon was seated with Marjory and Melville Moss.  About eight to ten other persons were present.  The table talk was “general” about historic Billings but a later and more private talk directed by Senia had a purpose.  When the luncheon was over she asked Vernon to accompany her and Miss Melville Moss to her car.  On the way, she asked Melville if she would permit Vernon, an architect, to prepare documentation to place her home on the National Register of Historic Buildings.  Dr. John Dehaas, Professor of Architecture at Montana State University, had started this process several years earlier.  With urging she agreed, provided that Marjory would be present when Vernon visited her home.


The National register application required floor plans and elevation drawings along with interior and exterior photographs.  When Vernon visited Miss Melville she was emphatic about several things.  [1] This was the Moss residence and not the Moss Mansion. [2] Vernon was not permitted in most of the rooms so could not make measurements. [3] Vernon could not photograph the interior.  It was because of these limitations and some misunderstandings that Dr. Dehaas had abandoned the application earlier. Senia Hart had obtained his files. 


Marjory Moss allowed a sneaked look into the off limits kitchen.  Miss Melville allowed Marjory to examine most of the second floor.  Melville brought out the interior photos taken when the house was new and loaned some to me for copying for the submittal.  Gary Drake, director of the Rescue Mission at that time, was studying photography at Eastern Montana College and agreed to take exterior photographs. Vernon failed to tell Melville and she was outraged at the invasion of her privacy and related how Jim Hoey, lawyer and artist had, without her permission, painted a watercolor that one of the banks was using for promotion. Melville wanted me to understand that this was her home.  People wanting to view the house were besieging her and trespassers often invaded her property. If a door were left unlocked while she worked outside with the flowers she might find children touring the house; two linemen on lunch break came in unannounced and were making an unsupervised tour when she interrupted; three couples uninvited to her sisters Cully’s funeral were found making a tour when the family returned from the cemetery.  “Everybody is just sitting around like a flock of crow on the fence waiting for me to die” she would say with anger. These actions contributed to the difficulty in preparing the home for placement onto the register.


Submitted about 1980, the document was approved and the Moss Mansion was placed on the National Register in 1982.  Vernon then continued meeting with Melville and Marjory Moss exploring the possibility of having the family donate the property to the City of Billings, taking a tax deduction to avoid the estate tax but retaining life tenancy.  She selected an attorney and accountant  [Judge Morris Colberg]. A price was established and presented privately to the City officials.  A Gazette reporter learned of the process and published the private information without authorization.  The next day people began ringing the doorbell demanding entrance.  It didn’t take Miss Melville long to withdraw the offer.


Miss Moss’s health declined.  It was necessary that she receive full time nursing care so her bed was brought to the main floor.  Her witty stories and remarks continued until her death on November 2, 1984 at the age of 82. The Billings Preservation Society had been formed to “save the Moss” but lacking tax-exempt status they asked the Parks and Recreation Foundation to incorporate the board into their agency and add the word Preservation to their name. This was a key element in the transformation and the acquisition and preservation of the property was accomplished.” [Note: For those who might want additional details, please contact the webmaster.[1]]



In 2000 Vernon became concerned about the degradation and erosion of Pompey’s Pillar due to air pollution, and wrote this letter for the Agri-News. He fought hard to prevent the potential site damage.


“The DEQ’s air quality permit moves the desecration of the most significant historic features in Montana is one step closer to being an irreversible catastrophe. This site is destined to be a featured tourist attraction and economic generator for all of Montana during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial period and thereafter.   Appropriate site selection was shamelessly ignored in the placement of the high-speed grain loading facilities being constructed by United Harvest and Cenex.  It is possibly understandable that the Japanese partner would be uninformed of the significance but for Cenex it borders on blatant stupidity and a blatant insult to the people of this beautiful state and the history of our nation. 


There is no possible way in which the damage to the visual effect and environmental degradation.  As an architect, had I been commissioned to develop a plan to deface the area, I would have been hard pressed to so effectively devastate the Monument.  Paint would in no way change the situation nor would planting of trees and vines.  The only solution is to relocate the facility.  The cost may have to be borne in part by the public.  The agricultural community cannot afford the by the national scandal that this foolish site selection will generate.”





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[1] Vernon Drake letter defining the processes used to establish the Moss Mansion.