A History of the Billings Petroleum Club
Before the formal incorporation of the Petroleum Club in 1954, the Club had its beginning in early 1950. The self-appointed first president was H. F. “Tax” King, Continental Oil Company landman. There were no initiation fees, no dues and no by-laws. Membership was by invitation only and limited to a select few. Weekly meetings were mostly held at the Northern Hotel and, under the presidency of Charles B. Dugger of Gulf Oil in 1951, arrangements were made to use the upstairs at the Turf Bar & Grill. Ben Robertson, Independent lease broker, was president for 1952 and Earl Witcher, Secretary-treasurer.
After significant discoveries of oil in Montana led to growth in the Oil & Gas community of Billings, a general meeting was called January 30, 1954 where a board of directors was selected, officers elected, and committees appointed. On that day, the BILLINGS PETROLEUM CLUB, as we know it today, became a reality. Articles of Incorporation and by-laws were prepared and on April 16, the Club was officially incorporated as a private, non-profit organization. A vacant building adjacent to the Stockman Bar and Café was chosen for the Club’s quarters and an agreement for service was negotiated with the Stockman’s owners, Les Fischbach and Lou Hall.
By mid-year 1959, major oil companies and larger independents were moving out of Billings, leaving in their wake a severely decimated Club membership. At that time, President Darrell Black, Shell Oil Company landman, led an effort to save the Club. A number of things were needed: a more convenient location, more attractive quarters, excellent cuisine and service, and above all, the help of the downtown business community. Led by business leaders Russ Hart, Clark Simon, and Paul Alweis, to name but a few, the community would rally round.
On November 27, 1959 an agreement was signed with the Northern Hotel for building a two story annex with the Club to have a fifteen year lease on the basement and ground floor. In return, the Club would make monthly rental payments structured to retire a fifteen year building loan, and be responsible for all property and real estate taxes attributed to the entire improvement. The annex was completed in May 1960 and the Club took possession the following June.
This part of the story would not be complete without the recognition of a small group of business friends dating from the late 1940’s, with the unlikely name of “Sheepherders”. The group included; Stanley Arkwright, Warren J. Hancock, Lester D. Carter, W. C Hardie, Robert E. Cooke, A. W. Hartwig, Phil N. Fortin, Frank P. Mackey, Robert R. Jones and P. A. “Pete” Thompson. It was the Sheepherders that Club president Darrell Black went to at that critical time in 1959 when the club was negotiating its agreement with the Northern Hotel.
The Sheepherders suggested that the Club ask for volunteers to prepay their dues for the 15 year life of the lease and use the proceeds to fund capital improvements. If the Club decided to do this, the Sheepherder’s agreed to participate and said they would try to get others to do likewise. A class of membership known as “15 years paid-up membership” was approved and the Sheepherders, true to their word, joined to a man. All told, some 50 members prepaid their dues, making it possible for an auspicious beginning.
In September 1977 the Club was approached by Harrison Fagg, local architect and entrepreneur, about relocating the Club to the top floor of a proposed 18 story Sheraton Hotel. A year was to pass before confirmation would be received that the hotel, now to be 22 stories, would indeed be built. In January 1979, the question of relocating the Club to the 22nd floor of the Sheraton was taken before the general membership where it received overwhelming support. After a number of delays, the Hotel was completed. On January 2, 1981, just 28 days short of it’s 27th anniversary, the club opened in it’s new quarters.
In the fall of 2002, the Club once again was struggling to survive and the name was changed to the Billings Professional Club. A decision was made to close the club and liquidate assets at the end of January 2003, unless members stepped forward with a plan to save the Club. A group did come forward with 5 year loan commitments, plans for changes in service and finances as well as a new program for Club Sponsor advertising. Loans were received from Brian Bross & Bonnie Daniels, John O Brown, Herb Hadley, Tom Hauptman, Jack McKee, Joe Montalban, Ron Ragland, Bob Rhodes, Ralph Spence, Kenneth Tolliver, Mary Waggoner and Tim Watts. A new board was elected in February with Ralph Spence, President and Dave Ballard, Vice President.
Again, the community rallied behind the Club with support from the Billings Sheraton Hotel, newspaper & TV publicity and renewed business from service organizations. Even though the majority of members are not in the Petroleum Industry, a survey of members in the fall of 2003 showed that 89% preferred the “Billings Petroleum Club” name and it was restored. We are proud of our history and pleased to celebrate 50 years of serving the community of Billings.