ABCs and 123s of Montana’s Historic Rural Schoolhouses
Hill School, recently rehabilitated with a Preserve Montana Fund grant, proudly shines against the Montana landscape. (Photo by the Montana Preservation Alliance)
Montana is well known for its breathtaking mountain views, majestic lakes and vast expanses of open prairie, but one new study is honing in on a particular type of building often seen within those iconic viewsheds – the country schoolhouse.
At one time, there were an estimated 2,600 rural schools in Montana. Beginning with the missions and gold camps, schoolhouses became essential community institutions and in the era of statehood and homesteading, they multiplied across the state. Today, Montana has more one- and two-room schools still in operation than any other state. Those still in operation are in good shape, but many of these beloved historic buildings are in urgent need of care and upkeep. Unless painting, roofing and repairs are done, these schools will be lost, erasing an essential part of Montana’s heritage.
That’s why the Montana Preservation Alliance recently has launched the Big Sky Schoolhouse Survey, a comprehensive statewide architectural survey and evaluation of Montana’s historic rural one- and two-room schoolhouses. In every corner of the state, rural heritage is reflected by log, wood, brick and stone schools from days gone by. As time marches on, many school districts, rural communities and citizens struggle to maintain these handcrafted buildings. To that end, MPA announced this new effort to spotlight Montana’s rural schoolhouses and to work to preserve them.
In fall 2014, MPA began compiling historical and geographical information on schoolhouses in each county with a grant from the Montana History Foundation. In addition to reaching out to county superintendents and local historical societies for information, they’ve combed the history books for references to small town schoolhouses and used historic topographic map information to pinpoint school locations. They also created a comprehensive database to hold information for each schoolhouse, which eventually will be available online for researchers to use.
In summer 2015, a student intern from Middle Tennessee State University’s Historic Preservation program and a seasoned MPA volunteer will hit the road to locate and photo document schools that are still standing. The focus this year is on counties in southwest and north central Montana. Ultimately, the goal is to locate and document schoolhouses in every county, and actively encourage stabilization of those most threatened.
“Through these efforts we hope to identify and help property owners who are interested in stabilizing and repairing their school,” says program coordinator Christine Brown. “Not every schoolhouse can have a new use, but our hope is to encourage stabilization of rural schoolhouses so that this strong and tangible piece of Montana history is there for future generations to learn about and enjoy. In many ways, any schoolhouse can continue to be a teaching tool.”
Three important and well-coordinated efforts to raise awareness and revive historic schoolhouses have been underway since 2012. The Preserve Montana Fund at the Montana History Foundation was established that year and has distributed over $50,000 to stabilize rural schoolhouses in the past three years with the dollar amount going to schools increasing every year. The driving force behind that increasing grant fund is the book “Visions and Voices: Montana’s One-Room Schoolhouses” by Charlotte Caldwell. The first printing in 2012 sold out quickly, and the second edition was released in fall 2014. Caldwell has dedicated 100 percent of the profits from the book’s sales to MHF’s Preserve Montana Fund specifically for preserving schoolhouses.
Through the Big Sky Survey, MPA hopes to encourage more property owners to apply for schoolhouse preservation grants and seek advice from MPA’s experienced staff. More information on the grant program can be found at http://www.mthistory.org/.
The third noteworthy effort to bring Montana’s country schools into the spotlight came when the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Historic Rural Schoolhouses of Montana on its 2013 List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. In the words of NTHP President Stephanie Meeks, “The proud rural heritage of Montana is reflected in its unparalleled collection of historic country schools.” The listing was accompanied by much statewide press and a subsequent article in the trust’s monthly publication, Preservation Magazine.
The Montana Preservation Alliance is a statewide nonprofit organization working since 1987, through advocacy and educational programs, to save and protect Montana’s historic places, traditional landscapes and cultural heritage.
If you would like to share information about a historic rural schoolhouse or volunteer to document or research schoolhouses, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 406-457-2822.
Christine Brown | Outreach & Education Director | Montana Preservation Alliance