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Lots happening when McNally was growing up

As a boy growing up in Billings in the 1950s, Dave McNally lived in the city's tree streets neighborhood, near the campus of then Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University-Billings). Still, he and his family, especially his mother, Beth, probably heard about a grassroots initiative some distance away. It was intended to give Magic City youngsters living on the booming West End more recreational opportunities.

In early July 1953, when Dave was 10 (he would turn 11 on October 31), the Yellowstone News, a weekly paper in Billings, reported on plans for a community recreation program. Organizers hoped to establish a program comparable to the city’s tax-supported and professionally staffed system, the News said in its July 2, 1953, issue.

Behind the initiative were parents in the West Poly Drive area, a suburb developed after World War II, largely by young veterans and their families. The West Poly Drive neighborhood was “crawling with children,” but they were isolated from urban recreational facilities by distance and lack of public transportation, the News said.

“So there was ample necessity to father the invention, and plenty of enthusiasm to back it up.”

One of the larger families in the area was that of Douglas MacCarter, president of the newly formed West Poly Recreation Association. He had five sons, twins who were eight-year-olds and six-year-old triplets. Smaller families, though, caused the association rolls to swell to include about 150 boys and girls. The youngsters even had their own board of directors to, as the News put it, “keep the adult board in line.”

Mrs. Bill Vitt was credited with coming up with the idea for the program around Easter that year. Parents hastily organized an Easter egg hunt and then gave the association a structure by electing officers and adopting a constitution and by-laws.

The association constitution limited membership to residents of an area bounded on the north by the High Ditch, east by Roth Lane, south by the Big Ditch, and west by the end of Poly Lane. Families outside those boundaries could be admitted by a vote of the association members.

Poly Drive etended to the 2600 block of that main road by 1954, according to the Polk city directory. Further evidence of Billings growth--it had a population of almost 32,000 in the 1950 census and was pushing 53,000 by 1960--comes from where two other arterials had reached by 1954, Rimrock Road to the 2600 block and Grand Avenue to the 2300 block.

No membership fee was set, but association rules said, “all contributions of time, materials and money will be accepted.” Fund-raisers by early July had included a bake sale, a flag sale, a picnic, an open house party, benefit card parties, movies for the children, and a ten-cent show in Harold Bates’ basement where nickel-a-bag popcorn was available. The association had raised about $150, most of which was earmarked to develop a “tot lot,” a baseball diamond and a softball field.

The tot lot, behind the Vitt home at 2527 Poly Drive, was fenced, and sand boxes were in place. It was supervised by volunteers for use by children up to seven years of age, for several hours each weekend morning and afternoon. The youngsters got a program of story telling, handicrafts, music, and play.

Ken Saunders loaned space for the baseball diamond and donated backstop materials. A.D. Lamb’s vacant lots were used for softball. Money had been appropriated for a volleyball net, and a basket and basketballs had been donated. The association planned to add badminton, croquet, and archery equipment after raising more money through dollar-a-head card games.

Mrs. Vitt was teaching acrobatic dancing to girls, and Mrs. MacCarter planned to start a rhythm band with homemade instruments. Victor McMillen and Larry Morrison started a fire prevention club in association with the city fire Marshall. The association planned to offer an ice skating rink in the winter.

At about the same time, Billings took steps to grow its population by about 3,500 people with a major annexation. The Billings Times reported on July 9, 1953, that the City Council had approved adding about 350 acres outside the city limits to Billings.

The annexed area extended to 15th Street West, north of Grand Avenue, and to 13th Street West, south of Grand. City Engineer E.R. Waldo said it was the first time to his knowledge that the city had taken the initiative to expand the Billings city limits. Until then, property owners outside the city limits had petitioned the council, requesting that their property be brought into the city.

Mayor Earle Knight said the annexation would require enlarging several city departments, especially police and fire, to protect the new city residents.

Dave McNally was growing up in a city on the move.

Author’s note: Using, I found a delightful picture of about three dozen youngsters that accompanied the Yellowstone News article. They had been assembled on short notice for a photo taken at the new softball field. Unfortunately, the screened dot-pattern on the picture proved nigh impossible to remove with image editing software. Also, I’m unsure who the copyright holder is on this 70-year-old photo (technically still a copyrighted property), who I could ask permission to use the picture. So, I couldn’t use it.

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Jamie Larson