Billings was born in Royalton, VT, on September 27, 1823, the fourth of nine children. His father was a merchant in Royalton, but when Frederick was 12, the family was forced to move to Woodstock, VT, in order to be within one mile of the county jail as his father had been adjudged a debtor. A local attorney befriended the Billings Family and was instrumental in Frederick’s enrollment at KUA where he studied in the Classical Department. From here, he matriculated to the University of Vermont, graduated in 1844, studied law and opened his practice in 1848 in Woodstock.
It is believed that Billings would have had a very successful career as a Vermont lawyer but he followed his brother-in-laws advice and went westward to San Francisco. When he set off in 1849 for California via the Isthmus of Panama, it was not for gold that he left Woodstock as the news of its discovery only reached him as he was waiting for a steamer in New York City, but to open a law office, the first one in San Francisco.
He formed a partnership with three lawyers – Halleck, Peachy and Park – that became the leading law firm in San Francisco. In 1861, now wealthy men, they dissolved the firm when Halleck left to take command of Union troops, two retired and Billings left for England on business connected with General John Fremont’s estate there. When he returned in 1862, he married Julia Parmly of New York City, and resumed his law practice in San Francisco. Due to ill health, the couple returned to Woodstock, VT, in 1866 where Billings purchased 600 acres of land that included the mansion of George Perkins Marsh, an early conservationist who wrote, Man and Nature and greatly influenced Billings in his regard for the environment. George Marsh was the son of one of KUA’s first trustees, Charles Marsh (1812-1824, President of the Board 1819-1824) who had attended the early meetings to establish an Academy; he had wanted the school to be located in Woodstock, but was outbid by Daniel Kimball.
Back in Woodstock, Billings began a new career when “…he purchased one of the original 12 interests in the Northern Pacific Railroad Company” which was “chartered to build a railroad from the head of Lake Superior … up to Puget Sound in Washington.” By 1879 he had been named president of the company and “… under his direction the Northern Pacific was able to raise the $40,000,000 necessary for the completion of the line. He remained president of the company until 1881; in 1882 “… the town of Billings, Montana, was named after him.”
Back in the East, Billings was active in other businesses in New York City during the winters but summers were spent in Woodstock where he became president of the Woodstock Railroad in 1883. As a very wealthy man, Billings was a philanthropist whose major gifts included, among other things, the University of Vermont, the town of Woodstock and the building of a church in Billings, Montana. He has been described as a lawyer, a conservationist, a pioneer in reforestation of his native Vermont, a scientific farm manager who introduced in the 1870s, Jersey cattle with direct Isle of Jersey bloodlines, to his farm.
He died on September 30, 1890, with his estate valued between $7,000,000-$8,000,000. The Billings name lives on in Woodstock through the successful Billings Farm and Museum that continues “…to operate as a commercial dairy with a concentration on its renowned Jersey herd.”
Next time: 19th Century Fires Change The Hilltop