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Lindbergh’s unpaid Billings bill

Not everyone in Billings held fond memories of Charles Lindbergh from when he lived in the city in 1922. Local historian Joyce Jensen, in her 1994 book, “Pieces and places of Billings History: Local Markers and Sites,” said Lindbergh was a hero to most in the city.

But, Jensen wrote, “to at least one Billing businessman, he simply was one who skipped town without paying his bill. Frank Spencer owned a restaurant on Montana Avenue where ‘Slim’ sometimes ate. He always charged his food. Then he left town without paying. Spencer was the kind who never would have dreamed of sending Lindbergh a bill, so Spencer never did think too highly of Lindbergh.”

In a June 12, 2022, phone interview, Jensen said Spencer became part of her family some time in the second decade of the 20th century. Her grandfather, Nathaniel Martin, and his brother, Ben, taking advantage of bumper cucumber crops in the Huntley Irrigation Project, started a pickling plant there. In 1915, Martin moved the plant into Billings, locating it along Moore Lane.

Frank Spencer apparently ran away from an abusive family situation in Massachusetts. He came to Billings, went to work at the Martins’ pickling plant and became friends with Jensen’s father, Robert “Bob” Martin. Spencer was considered part of the Martin family, Jensen said. Some time in the early 1920s, Spencer either opened or became associated with a restaurant on Montana Avenue. The exact address is unknown, but it likely was close to the Westover garage on the 2300 block of First Avenue North, making it convenient for Lindbergh to drop in for a meal.

After Lindbergh's fabled New York-to-Paris flight, “Frank never contacted him,” according to what her father told her, Jensen said.‌‌

Lindbergh left one other memory with the Martins and others who knew him during his time in Billings. Jensen said Lindbergh was sometimes addressed as “dirty neck Slim” due to his habit of wiping his hot and sweaty hands on his neck.

The Westover Garage on the 2300 block of First Avenue North in Billings, as it appeared in the early 1920s when Charles Lindbergh worked here as a car and airplane engine mechanic. (Montana Historical Society photo)
The Westover garage site in 2022. The building later was used as a grocery store, then as a camera store, and it was vacant for years before being demolished in the spring of 2022. Shown here is Cecilia Gavinsky, archivist for the Western Heritage Center who conducted a downtown Billings walking tour of historic buildings on June 3, 2022. (Dennis Gaub photo)

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Jamie Larson