Small Wonders: Montana's Schoolhouses
Diminutive schoolhouses play a major role in Montana's rural communities.
allow Creek School?” asked the 5-year-old boy in denim, mimicking the way I had said “creek:” with a long “e,” like the sound of an old door shutting. Like an outsider.
I was nearly through touring one-room and rural schools in my home state, Montana. I wound up in Phillips County, in the vast, grassy open about halfway between Sheridan, Wyoming, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I had flown 2,300 miles from New York City, and would drive about an equal number to visit schools and people. This was the best way I knew to reconnect, and to better see the ways that the changing relationship between Montanans and their land has shaped the challenge of preserving theest schools in the fourth-largest state in the nation.
Montana still has around 60 rural and one-room schools in use today -- the most in America, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But that number once totaled 2,600. I had already visited four, each one an archetype of the varying conditions of rural schoolhouses in modern Montana. One was thriving. Another had been turned into a community center. A third stood abandoned, while a fourth was rebuilt and preserved. The fifth, Tallow Creek School, lay in the murky middle. Out on a prairie that seemed endless, the little white schoolhouse with the battered roof could have a future like any of the other schools I’d seen. The question was, which one would it be?
I wanted to visit Tallow Creek, but for that I needed the OK of half its student body -- the boy. And he just squared on me like a stern teacher.
I start my odyssey in a valley named Blackfoot in the rough mountains of western Montana, long scraped by loggers and miners. On a dirt road in the town of Greenough stands a white clapboard building, the Sunset School, originally opened in the late 1800s. Its pitched metal roof is painted maroon, and from one end rises a small bell tower.
Teacher Toni Hatten welcomes me inside first thing on a Monday morning after checking the mousetraps. She talks about the school’s lifesaving enrollment jump: from one student to eight in three years.
“That was my goal when I got here: How could we bring the kids back?” says Hatten, 47, a native of Lincoln, Nebraska, with full cheeks, sharp eyes, and wavy black hair to her shoulders.
Tiny schools once bloomed all over Montana, where a century ago more than 30 million acres -- more than in any other state -- were given to homesteaders. These farmers, ranchers, miners, and loggers built thousands of small schoolhouses, such as Sunset. But where many frontier schools had dirt floors, sod roofs, and no electricity, Sunset is warm and wired. I follow a crew-cutted new student named Jack Robinson to his desk in a room stocked with computers and iPads, its walls covered in bright posters that complement a sepia portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
“And in front we use the Smart Board,” Hatten says.
“Smart Board?” I ask.
It is to a chalkboard what a jet is to an oxcart. Essentially a touchscreen computer that fills a wall, the Smart Board is shown to me by a 13-year-old named Amber Leetch. She was the subject of a 2012 New York Times story because she was the only student in her entire school district -- a perfect example of the sometimes hard-to-justify costs of keeping small schools open.
“It was really nice to have one-on-one with my teacher,” she tells me, wrapped in a colorful coat at recess in a prime Montana chill. “But now I like to help teach the littler kids.
Hatten recruited Amber’s classmates by meeting parents and showing them the advantages of a small school education. “The personal attention from the teacher is what I liked,” said Kathryn Campbell, who enrolled her three kids. Like many Sunset parents, Campbell’s husband works for Paws Up, a luxury guest ranch (visitors have included Harrison Ford and the Rolling Stones) on the top-rated trout river two miles from the school. The shift from natural resource extraction to tourist attraction in parts of Montana has caused more than a little tension. But inside Sunset School, the combination of local history, global connectivity, and student interaction makes for powerful lessons.
On the Smart Board, Hatten shows a film about children who mine for gold in the West African country of Burkina Faso. Amber, who lives near the ghost town of Garnet, where her grandmother used to lead tours around a spent gold mine, tells the class that the shoeless African children are surface mining. Eight-year-old Maccailein Campbell notes they are using pickaxes, just like bygone miners in the Blackfoot Valley. He is moved to speak.
“I think the kids should get good schools,” he says.
Amber gives him a nod.
For almost 50 years the Radersburg School sat empty at the edge of a five-block town in southcentral Montana. Facing the snowy Big Belt Mountains, it was little more than a place of refuge for mule deer, like the 30 I see in its yard when I visit. In 2009, this boxy, off-white brick building topped with a bell tower got a new beginning. A few former students joined forces to turn their old school into a community center for family reunions, weddings, and holiday dinners.
“The ball started rolling,” says Alan Smith, 57. He is on break from an elk hunt, warming by the school’s new heater. “And we haven’t let it stop since.”
In late 2009, Smith and his wife, Deb, called a town meeting. Seven people pledged $100 to reopen the school. Soon, others gave, too. Eventually there were enough funds to fix the roof, coat the front door with fresh red paint, and give Radersburg new life.
“There’s a real concern that in these rural towns, if the schoolhouse ceases to exist the town would cease to exist,” says Amy Sullivan, formerly of the Montana History Foundation, Incorporated, which awarded a $5,000 grant to Radersburg School.
The school opened in 1913, the year homesteading peaked in America. A quarter-million people migrated to Montana, 2,500 of them to Radersburg. In time, the mines played out, the logging industry collapsed, and farmers and ranchers faced drought. People followed jobs to bigger towns, leaving homesteads and schools. Census data shows that Montana has swelled to about a million residents, but mostly in the six largest towns. Radersburg now has approximately 66.
“The community spirit changed,” says town historian Harla Gillespie, 77, who has clear blue eyes and sits by the heater with her husband, Bill, 80, in a jean jacket and white cowboy hat.
Beside them, in a heavy tan coat flecked with mud, is Dan Williams, 67. When asked his occupation he says, “right across the road.” I look and see his herd of Black Baldy cattle.
He pronounces “creek” the Montana way -- rhyming with “stick.” Then he laughs about a prank once played on a schoolmate “in the hooter.”
“Hooter?” I ask.
“Outhouse,” he says with a grin.
Around him are bright color photos of a celebration held on June 22, 2013, the centennial of Radersburg School. Hundreds turned out. When I ask about that day, Williams turns serious.
“The preservation has been a fine experience for everybody. It welded the community together,” he says, looking around his old, wooden classroom. “And we have had some pretty damn good feelings running through here.”
Most of the one-room schools that sprouted in Montana now rest, weathered and worn, alongside empty badlands highways, up piney gravel roads, and past cattle guards in grain fields. Preservationist Charlotte Caldwell drove 14,000-plus miles to visit more than 150 of them. She piqued new interest in rural schools in 2012 when she published a book called Visions and Voices: Montana’s One-Room Schoolhouses.
She recommends I see the Placer School, a short drive (by Montana metrics) from Radersburg.
Granted permission to visit, I cross a snowy two-track on private property past Black Angus cows until the building appears in a pasture, as stark as a battered castle. Unlike many frontier schools, Placer School was built of fieldstone.
I hike over. Six pigeons flap from a crumbling red brick chimney. Inside, the floor is covered with wood planks fallen from the roof. In the snow, I spot fresh hare tracks. There is no heater, new roof, Smart Board, or group of friends, only cold wind breathing through eight empty windows.
“That history and culture will fade away and out of memory,” Caldwell tells me, “when that schoolhouse falls to the ground.”
PRAIRIE UNION SCHOOL
Out of the mountains and into the wide and wavy eastern plains, I stop in the Malta, Montana, living room of 97-year-old Bessie Mae Waters to learn how the next school I’m going to see got its name. Waters tells me that her family moved to Malta from near Falls City, Nebraska, in 1927. Just before the U.S. entered World War II, her sister Gladys sent her two young sons to a one-room school repurposed from an abandoned homesteader cabin built in 1912. The little building of rough-hewn cottonwood logs reminded Gladys of the church they had left behind in Nebraska -- the Prairie Union Church.
“My sister thought it would be a perfect name,” says Waters, an eloquent woman with silver hair, “because this place was also on the prairie.”
The Prairie Union School opened for grades one through eight in 1943, got its first electric light bulb in 1956, and closed just a year later. In 2007 the nonprofit American Prairie Reserve rebuilt, preserved, and reopened the school. When architect Harry Howard began the restoration, he dug through two feet of Cold War cow dung to find the original floor.
“But it was delightful,” says Howard, who re-created the wood plank door, sash windows, and sod roof. “And for such a tiny little school, it was remarkable how many people had a history there.”
Damien Austin, a reserve supervisor for the American Prairie Reserve, lets me inside. The room is barely tall enough for him, or wide enough for four kids’ desks. On the log walls hang an American flag, a portrait of Lincoln, and a map of more than 100 rural schools that once filled Phillips County -- now mostly gone. There’s also a speaker box. With the press of a button I hear former student Charlene Barnard McCully remembering Christmases at Prairie Union School.
“Everybody got together and it was just a fun, fun time,” relays her recorded voice. “It was a community time.”
The American Prairie Reserve purchases ranches from people who decide to move on from this distant part of Phillips County. The organization is building a wildlife sanctuary on hundreds of thousands of acres around the Prairie Union School, where antelope dance on bluffs, elk bugle in bottomlands, and bison—once exterminated here—roam again. The idea is for the sanctuary to one day be like a privately owned national park: on scale with Yellowstone, open to all, and home to the animals seen in this region by the first American explorers, Lewis and Clark.
“It’s a vital eco-region,” Austin says as we leave the school.
“Eco-region?” I ask, the wind blowing out my voice.
I look it up later. He meant the 200,000,000-acre Northern Great Plains. Or maybe the 200-square-foot school.
TALLOW CREEK SCHOOL
The last place on my itinerary is also in Phillips County, and to be led there I meet Sierra Dawn Stoneberg Holt. She is the teacher at the Tallow Creek School, and her daughter Zora, 7, and son Linden, 5, are its students. Wearing a red-and-white plaid shirt and braids, Stoneberg Holt shows me a 1950s photograph taken outside the Tallow Creek School of a little blond girl holding a silver syrup pail -- her mother.
Tallow Creek School was built around 1920, just after Stoneberg Holt’s great-grandmother filed a homestead claim here on the Missouri River Breaks. But three years ago, the nearest school district quit paying for upkeep on the building, putting its future in jeopardy.
Now Stoneberg Holt, 41, homeschools her kids on her family’s cattle ranch 45 minutes away, but says they benefit greatly by also using the Tallow Creek School once a month. And she wants to make sure the school is secured for future generations of ranch families as a bulwark against what she sees as worrisome changes. She is skeptical of the vision of the American Prairie Reserve. And she is against the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, poised to enter the United States from Canada at the top of Phillips County.
“I have to do it so I can look at myself in the mirror and not say I could’ve done something if I tried,” says Stoneberg Holt, who recently received a $5,000 grant from the Montana History Foundation to fix the school’s aging roof.
Under that roof are children’s desks, alphabet placards, an upright piano, a map of Montana, a portrait of Barack Obama, a poster reading, “There’s No Way To Have An Ag-Less Day,” and a flag from the Czech Republic, where Stoneberg Holt once studied. Outside are currant bushes, braying brown cows, and so much amber grass that gazing through a school window is like watching the sea through a porthole on a ship.
I think about all the schools I’ve seen, culminating in this one, down a long dirt drive called Content Road. Just like their builders, I don’t know their future. But I want to see them again, and find them in fine shape. I’ve learned that more than any beam of cottonwood, or any cornerstone of granite, what holds up Montana’s rural schools is the grit and the love of the people they touch.
Hopefully when I come back, I’ll be welcomed in the same spirit as when I first asked Linden if I could see his Tallow Creek School.
“We’re going to,” he corrects, “the Tallow Crick School.”
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