Big Flat Couple Celebrates Seventy Years of Marriage


June 5, 2019

Jim Billmayer and Helen Christiansen, who were married May 18, 1949 at the Lutheran Church in Hogeland, Montana, celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary with family and friends on May 26. For photos taken that day, Helen wore the seventy-year-old wedding dress made by her sister Irene. When asked for advice on how to stay married for so long, Helen replied: "I said 'yes' lots of times when I wanted to say 'no.'" Jim had no comment.

Once Helen had put on her wedding dress, she just as easily slipped into the past to reflect on her early courtship days. Jim and Helen (Christiansen) Billmayer were both born and raised on the "Big Flat" where their families homesteaded. They attended school together and began dating as freshmen in high school. Because times were tight and the family homestead was approximately ten miles from town, finding a place for Helen to live in Hogeland so that she could attend school grew difficult, and the Christiansens didn't want their daughter living at the hotel. Consequently, Helen moved to California for her junior and senior years to reside with Reverend and Mrs. Julius Hansen, close family friends who had recently moved from Hogeland to Santa Rosa.

While in California, Helen attended Santa Rosa High School and was a member of Bethlehem Lutheran Church whose parishioners knew her for her musical ministry and talent. The Hansens treated her like a daughter of their own.

After high school graduation in 1946, Helen attended a year of college at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, where she studied music. That year was followed by one at Northern Montana College in Havre where she studied business. Helen put that education to work in Great Falls where she lived with her sister Irene and family until early May 1949. Meanwhile, Jim went to college in Missoula for two years and worked towards a law degree, but he didn't finish his education because he was needed on the family farm.

While Helen and Jim were living great distances from each other or attending school, they remained connected by writing lots of letters back and forth since telephones weren't used much at that time, according to Helen. They also saw each other during the summer months.

After deciding to marry, the couple agreed that they had to ask Reverend Julius Hansen to officiate. Helen's daughter-in-law, Betty Billmayer has a newspaper clipping from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, dated Wednesday, May 11, 1949, that tells the story of the Billmayers' upcoming nuptials. The headline reads: "Local Minister Will Marry Pair in Story Book Romance."

When the Hansens flew into Great Falls on Sunday, May 15, they brought suitcases full of flowers from their yard in California for the wedding. Along with making Helen's wedding dress, Irene, the sister of the bride, also made the cake. Following a day of flowers, finery, and celebration, the newlyweds spent the night in Havre.

The next day, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Billmayer left with the Reverend and Mrs. Hansen for the long drive back to California. Upon their arrival, the congregation of the church that Hansen pastored in Santa Rosa hosted a reception for the newlyweds where they had their wedding photos taken.

Many years later, the Lutheran Church in Turner burned down. After the congregation rebuilt the church, they received a gift from the Lutheran Church in Santa Rosa-a large picture of the shepherd Jesus and his flock, a painting that had provided the backdrop to Jim and Helen's wedding photos. That picture still hangs on the church wall in Turner. Although the Billmayers were married in Hogeland's Lutheran Church, the same pastor normally serves both churches.

The couple honeymooned for about a month, sightseeing along the Northern Coast of California called the Redwood Empire. When they returned to Jim's family's farm west of Hogeland, they lived with his dad, Roy. Jim's mother Mabel (McGuire) resided in Harlem for a time running the confectionary.

That fall, Helen's dad, Christ Christiansen, took Helen to Havre for a doctor's appointment and ended up having a heart attack himself. He passed away in the fall of 1949. Because the family didn't think Helen's mother should live alone on the farm, they moved her to a house in Harlem that her father had bought. At the time, that house was being rented by Russell and Cora Benson, who then moved across the street. With the Christensen homestead now vacant, Jim and Helen moved to Helen's parents' farm.

In November of 1950, Jim, who had earlier signed up for the Reserves, was called to duty in San Diego, California. After he completed boot camp to become a sea-going Marine, Helen and their young son Gene moved to San Diego where the family rented a house with two other couples. Their daughter Linda was born there a few months before Jim completed his tour of duty.

During late summer of 1951, the Billmayers returned to the farm, living in the original house which became a "good year house"-if it was a good year, they added on. Over the years, additions came in the form of other buildings being moved in and added onto the house. Except for months spent in Sun City, Arizona, every year for the past twenty or so years-to escape the historically cold January temperatures-the Billmayers still call the Big Flat, home.

Two more children were born to the Billmayers, Larry in 1953 and Mark in 1954. Mark's wife Betty has the original telegram from Jim to Reverend Hansen announcing Mark's birth on January 21, 1954. That telegram further reports: "38 below and lots of snow." Following the delivery, Jim took the attending doctor, Dr. Lawson, to the depot in Havre to catch a train somewhere.

In addition to their four children-Gene, Larry, Linda (Petrie) and Mark- Jim and Helen have eleven grandchildren and seventeen great-grandchildren, some of whom are now the fourth, fifth and sixth generations living on the family farm.

Over the years, Jim and Helen have traveled extensively with an organization called the Friendship Force. This affiliation has provided the opportunity to visit many other countries, including Spain, Russia, China, England, Peru, Brazil, Kenya, and Israel, where the couple stays with local families. Some of those families have also visited them in Montana. While they love the adventure of travel, they always appreciate returning to the "good year house" and their roots on "The Big Flat."


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