On The Road: Back in Billings

We went back to Billings again yesterday. It’s an easy 140 mile drive which makes for a busy day trip or a relaxed overnight. We opted for the overnight, staying at the Dude Rancher again. There are pics of it in the first post of this thread. We hit town around 5:00, just as the sun was setting, but still with enough time to get an hour in at a big antique mall on the fringes of downtown, Marketplace 3301. There were definitely some things there I wish I had bought, but that were just too high- an 1800s bearskin coat for $250, or the sign off the Great Falls Hub store, from which I’ve had a number of pieces that were originally sold there over the years. But if I bought everything I wanted, I’d be broke with a houseful of unsalable things. Not that that’s too far off the mark as it is.

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The next morning, we went back to 3301, to finish up the second floor, as we ran out of time Thursday evening. We went for breakfast at a place called the Muzzleloader. It boasted having been in business since 1957, and was out on the industrial side of town. I had visions of a typically western cafe- knotty pine, worn stools and a rifle hanging over the counter. Pulling up we were met with an enormous Cracker Barrel reject looking building, half cafe, half casino. Inside was large and impersonal, with that certain combination of beige and pastel that only late ’80s remodelings can yield. But, it was packed with locals and had a chicken fried steak special, so what the hey, we gave it a shot.

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Then on to downtown Billings, for Yesteryear’s antique mall, a sprawling 3 story place. It has remarkable turnover in their stock, and I’ve always managed to find good things there. Oxford Antiques, in business for 31 years, was closed for the day. Last I was there, I was chatting with the owners and they were mentioning that they were easing somewhat into retirement, ramping down their hours and marking lots of the stock in the store down 50% to move it. So hopefully they were out enjoying the last bit of good weather before winter hits in full and I’ll catch them next time.

I made my requisite stop to Montana Vintage Clothing- if you’re ever in the area, you must stop. They have racks and racks of vintage menswear, 1920s-1960s, suits, ties, jackets, shoes, hats, you name it. And while their men’s section has the scope and sheer volume that would make people here weep, it’s small when compared to the women’s side. They’ve been in business 17 years, are extremely knowledgeable and friendly and being located in Billings, have affordable prices. You could score yourself a ’30s suit, tie and hat all for under $200.

Then on to the thrift shops, the big Goodwill outside town, the two St. Vincent DePauls, the Montana Rescue Mission, the Family Service Secondhand. I swear they’ve raised their prices, with better deals to be found at the antique shops. $30 for a mothy ’50s overcoat? That’s more than I could charge with all my experience and contacts. We passed abandoned warehouse buildings bearing the signs of two defunct antique malls, and the abandoned Salvation Army. For a town that’s always been reliable as a source of vintage for me, it seems it hasn’t always been kind to the shops that sell it. There’s a certain desperation to Billings.

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We made one last quick stop in Big Timber, where I finally bought a ’30s/’40s suit (sans jacket) that I had seen on the pricing rack the better part of a year ago, but had been unable to buy then. It took its time, but finally made its way out. As we got closer to Bozeman, the temperature dropped and the snow closed in, white specks on the horizon growing into snowy mountains.

Exhausted, we settled back in. This was the trip of Open Roads. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be another one.

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Stetson One Hundred – Rands

http://www.ebay.com/itm/400998668620
This vintage hat was made by the John B. Stetson company in the 1960s. It is their Beaver One Hundred model, made from pure beaver felt, originally retailing for a hundred dollars. It has a lining from Rand’s of Billings, who probably did some cleaning or renovation at some point. It measures 21-1/2″ inside, about a 6-7/8″.

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On the Road in Billings, MT

One of the most common questions I get, right after, “how did you get into all this?”, is “where do you find all your stuff?”. It’s one of those questions that can be hard to answer. “Oh, you know, here and there” usually suffices and avoids the long story.  But the truth is, I drive a lot.

This weekend was a casual overnight excursion to Billings, Montana. For those of you not familiar with the area, the drive from Bozeman to Billings is just under 150 miles, and usually I make it as a day trip. So that’s a 300 mile round trip, hours on the road and a tank of gas, for the hope that maybe, just maybe, there will be some old ties or a couple of vintage hats waiting to be found. There are no guarantees in this business.

But I’ve had good luck in Billings in the past. There are a number of antique shops, thrift stores, secondhand stores and the like, and I usually get lucky at at least one or two.  This past weekend, one of the larger antique malls was having an outdoor antique fair, with its craigslist ad touting 70 vendors.  It was enough to hopefully tip the odds in my favor.

My girlfriend, Alex, and I drove out Friday night so that we could get an early start so we could be back in Bozeman before the sun started to set. We stayed at a charming 1950s motor court, the Dude Rancher Lodge. Neon, knotty pine and exposed beam ceilings combined with recent western themed carpets and brand wall hangings courtesy an appearance on “Hotel Impossible” several years ago, made for a charming place to stay. Full of character, it was way more fun than a chain motel, and just the right kind of place for vintage people like us.

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We made it to the fair a little later than we had hoped, it turned out that in Billings on a Saturday morning, everyone goes out for breakfast, and lined stretched out the door of everyplace good or interesting. I went against every fiber of my being and went to the practically deserted Denny’s for a generic breakfast. I think that might have cancelled out the “shop local” cred the Dude Rancher got me. Oh well.  There was a lot of re-purposed, re-painted, hand-made, shabby chic type of antiques at the fair, but also a few gems to be had. Afterward, we hit up the aforementioned antique shops in downtown Billings and a few of the thrifts. Here are a few of the neat things I spotted, but didn’t buy.  It seemed like I was tripping over vintage hats and vintage neckties at every step, but I have to be selective.  The market is really down on the more mundane patterns of 1940s ties, so even at the reasonable $6 a piece that one vendor was asking, there’s no way for me to make any money from that, so I let probably 30-some of them sit. Same with hats- below a certain size or a certain brim length, there’s such limited demand.
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Things survive in Billings. It’s a good town for lovers of vintage. Neon signs, ghost signs, architecture.
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After a long day of hunting, I managed to find a good sized cache of vintage hats, most of which were originally sold within a few miles of where I found them. But for me, the real treat was that leather jacket.  They’re all over the internet, but it’s getting harder and harder to find “out in the wild”. And this one’s a real beauty. Great patina and a rare model.  I’d love to know who wore it some 60 odd years ago, but I can say that it’s pretty likely they rode a Harley in Billings.
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Here’s the full haul all cleaned up and photographed. For those of you who are interested, you can check out the whole batch HERE
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Al’s Bootery Billings, Montana cowboy boot bag

http://www.ebay.com/itm/400937693628
This vintage bag was made in the 1960s to carry a pair of custom made cowboy boots from Al’s Bootery of Billings, Montana. It has a large pull zipper, two tone styling and a great mid-century logo of Al with his tools and boots. With it’s secure zipper closure and large size, it makes the perfect stylish carryall or overnight bag.

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1960s Gross West Wear western jacket

http://www.ebay.com/itm/281484776616
This vintage western jacket was made in the 1960s by Gross westernwear for The West Wear, Billings, Montana. Is is a black and blue pattern, with western yokes front and back. It is half lined with a wild lining.

Chest (pit to pit): 22″
Shoulder to shoulder: 18″
Sleeve (shoulder to cuff): 26″
Length (base of collar to hem): 31″

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