Offbeat Billings history saved, posted on the web


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Vince Long sits amid a small portion of the nearly 600 reel-to-reel tapes he digitized and preserved on his website.

Vince Long recently completed a year-long deep dive into Billings history, and now he’s sharing the fruits of his labor on the internet.

Those fruits consist of 980 hours and 13 minutes of random audio slices of Billings in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, though some of the trove also consists of national radio broadcasts recorded in Billings.

There are lots of recordings of church services or sermons, and lots of political events — “and sometimes you really couldn’t the difference,” Long said. The John Birch Society and anti-communism in general is featured heavily, as are local issues of contention, including fluoridated water.

There are also many local radio broadcasts, including call-in shows. It’s somehow reassuring to hear Long say: “If you think they’re crazy on the radio now? Oh, no. There were a lot more loose nuts back then.”

Long, who retired from teaching technology at Billings Senior High in 2012, stumbled on the collection of reel-to-reel audio recordings in the mid-2000s, when a fellow teacher told him her father-in-law was having an estate sale, and might have items Long would find interesting.

She was right. The sale included an estimated 600 reels of recording tape, so Long, a collector of vintage radios and recording equipment and old recordings, bought the entire collection.

“I just packed them under the stairs in the basement,” he said, fascinated by the collection but also daunted by its size. A few years earlier, Long had purchased a somewhat similar collection, though not so large and recorded on “paper tape,” which predated plastic or polyester tape.

He converted those 200 reels of tapes into mp3 files and posted them on the “Paper Tape Archive,” part of his Old Time Radio site. The paper tapes consisted mostly of old-time radio shows; musical recordings captured live and recorded off the radio; and some local sports and news.

The 600-some tapes Long bought later sat in his basement until just about a year ago, when he decided to finally start going through them and converting them to digital recordings. He thought he would be able to do about one reel a week, which would have taken almost two years, but it was so much fun once he got into it that he recently completed the project.

“It was like a full-time job for about a year,” he said.

Those recordings are now posted on the web, too, as “The 600,” though the precise number of tapes actually came to 561. The collection of reel-to-reel tapes was assembled by a man who purchased them over time from local thrift stores, apparently to be recorded over, not necessarily listened to. About two-thirds of the tapes were miscellaneous musical recordings and radio broadcasts.

The other third, the part that really interested Long, was recorded by one person, a local barber by the name of Jim. He’s the one who recorded the John Birch discussions, the anti-fluoridation talk and the call-in radio shows, all in the 1950s and ’60s.

Best of all, Long said, he recorded many, many hours of people just conversing in his barbershop. It was a little odd when Long realized, picking up on numerous verbal hints, that most of the people apparently didn’t know their conversations were being recorded.

“My question was, am I violating someone’s privacy? Because some of these people are still alive.”

But Long doesn’t think there’s anything damaging or terribly embarrassing in the tapes, and he doesn’t give anyone’s full names in the notes accompanying each file. Those notes, by the way, so full of detail and clearly the result of much internet sleuthing, help explain why the project took so much time.

Long tried to date every single recording and to provide as much context as he could, so people know what they’re listening to.

And though Long figured out who Jim the barber was, he doesn’t name him, either.

One touching incident related to his work on the project came when Long found a recording of Jim’s daughters singing along to their mother’s piano accompaniment. Working his way through city directories at the library, Long tracked down one of the daughters, who was still living in Billings.

“It was a strange conversation,” Long said, “because she suspected I might be a scam artist trying to get money for the recordings.”

He eventually convinced her otherwise — he even suggested that she call the Senior High principal, who would vouch for him — and sent her a disc or two with all the recordings he could find that featured her father and family.

Another recording, from 1957, was of the funeral and eulogy for Ernest T. Eaton, the co-founder of Rocky Mountain College, the school Jim the barber had attended. When Long found out Rocky didn’t have a copy of the recording, he gave one to the history department there.

To help visitors to the site who might not want to wade through almost 1,000 hours or recordings, Long has also compiled a highlights page, with short descriptions of some of his favorite snippets.

Long thinks the recordings will appeal to people “interested in the fine points of Billings history,” or people just interested in eavesdropping on the lives of others.

“It paints a picture of who these people were,” Long said. “I wanted to share it because I knew there were people who would want to paw through it.”

There’s no charge to use the site and Long makes no money from it, as is the case with his other projects.

“It’s just a passion of mine to find weird recordings and release them,” he said.

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