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Montana’s One Room School Houses

Historical Gold in the Treasure State

by Dianne Stuart

Author Laura Engels Wilder gave us a glimpse of life during the settlement of the American West in her book,”Little House on the Prairie” by enacting life in a one room school house. In these small but special spaces, students and their teachers brought to life the joys and challenges associated with early pioneering.

There was a time in American history when almost every American child was educated in a one-room school. In the 1700’s, John Adams taught in a one-room school in Boston. Abraham Lincoln was educated in one and Henry Ford loved his one room school so much he had it moved to a museum in Michigan. As late as 1913, half of American children were enrolled in 200,000 one-room schools in the United States. However, after World War I, one room schools began to close as people moved into cities and schools consolidated to accommodate larger student bodies.

Today there are still 200 operational one-room school houses in the United States. The state of Montana has the most counting 62 even though twenty one-room schools have closed statewide over the last ten years. The migration away from agricultural communities and into the cities has decreased the need for the small rural school. Due to escalating prices for land, Montana farmers and ranchers moving to the cities has increased causing young ranch families to go out of business or ranch elsewhere.

The city of Twin Bridges boasts Montana’s oldest standing one room school house. The cabins were modestly furnished with desks and a chalkboard and the teacher arrived early to start the wood stove to warm it up for her students. Sometimes teachers would rotate among the schools so that the students would not have the same teacher for eight years. Outside there was usually some type of makeshift playground equipment for recess. Students had to share books, paper and supplies.

Recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning was Montana’s Divide School which has been operational since 1870. Judy Boyle, Divide’s teacher, loves her job. She functions as teacher, principal, guidance counselor and holds teacher’s meetings once a week with herself. Grades K-8 are taught in the same room to as many as eight students. Ms. Boyle had three students this year and makes separate lesson plans for each student and customizes the curriculum enabling her to “respect their differences and come to learn what makes them tick.” The students have had the same teacher 180 days a year for nine years. Ms. Boyle says: “I can’t help but love them. They are a part of me and I am a part of them”.

Students sometimes sit in the very same rooms that the settlers did with blackboards and erasers replaced by Ipads, however, some of the traditions remain. The older students help the younger ones, especially learning to read. Eavesdroppers learn from listening in on older student’s lessons which helps them to advance grades easily. There are no janitors, so students clean the school daily developing a common sense of responsibility for their school building. All schools must meet the same state and national standards and the cost per student is roughly the same as a traditional classroom. Ms. Boyle points out that the small community school is very important because it generates the reputation of the area.

One would think the students would miss participating in team sports. At Divide, several one room schools combine to make up teams in basketball and track. After completing eighth grade, students face the daunting prospect of moving to a city high school which one student described as “terrifying”. Adjusting from a school of seven to eight students to one with thousands, can be a rough transition.

In 2012, in Greenough, Montana, the Sunset School had the unique problem of keeping its lone student at her desk in order to keep the school open. Their one student, aged 11, made up the entire Sunset School District 30. Sunset is the smallest one room school in Montana. Built in 1917, it has retained its historic exterior including the antique playground equipment and a bell tower that long since ceased to ring. Inside, however, there are computers and the blackboard has been replaced by a smart board, which is a kind of electronic white board. 

The school is isolated like the town, once a site for industrial logging. The general store and post office have closed and the nearest town is twenty miles away. There is no school bus so the student rides on the back of her mother’s snowmobile to school in the winter. Placer School in Broadwater County and Travis Creek School in Jefferson County were “summer schools” open from spring through fall because heavy snowfall prevented students from attending during the winter months.

The teacher at Sunset, Ms. Hatten, helped combat the loneliness by adding a three month old husky puppy that became the official school dog. In 2001, there were twenty students at the school, but as young ranching families began moving away, enrollment plummeted. Sunset has hopes of enrolling two perhaps three students in the future in hopes to keep the school open.

Theater productions also pose a problem for the one room school community, with students having to play multiple roles. Sunset combines with Ovando School for the Christmas pageant, while they gather to play volleyball at a school twenty-one miles away. Historically, the one room school once functioned as a social center for farmers and ranchers in the area. They were the hosts of Halloween parties, Christmas programs, and elections. Everyone attended school functions even if they did not have a student attending making the school the center of community spirit.

A New York Times article highlights the work of author and photographer, Charlotte Caldwell, who has sought out these schools and its past attendees and has written, “Visions and Voices: Montana’s One Room School Houses”.

According to Caldwell’s research, a huge homesteading drive just before and during WWI led to the building of 2,600 one-room school houses. With passing time and shifting populations, some have been torn down, some deserted and forgotten, however, some have been tenderly maintained by their communities.
Even though Montana still has more historic school houses for original use than any other in the United States, preservationists say that the historic buildings are at risk because of the continuing population shift toward urban centers. In 2013, The National Trust for Historic Preservation added Montana’s one-room school houses to their list of the Nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historical Places. In efforts to bring attention to the problem and to help fund preservation efforts, The Preserve Montana Fund was established. It is a partnership between The Montana Preservation Alliance and the Montana History Foundation to preserve Montana’s endangered one room school houses.

Montana still maintains the mystique and romance associated with the pioneering and settlement of the West. These tiny one room structures stand resolutely in stark contrast to the modern bustle around them as a solitary celebration of rural Montana and the richness of its spirit and heritage. They continue in everyday practice what we all treasure in our imaginations as “the good old days” and as such, deserve to be valued as the historical treasures that they are.

For more information or to contribute to preservation efforts contact the Montana History Foundation, 1750 N. Washington St., Helena, Mt.   

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