One-room schoolhouses, one of the last testimonies to Montana’s homesteading history and spirit, are slowly crumbling back into the soil.
With them go the memories and voices of those who spent much of their childhood within those walls.
Over the past three years, author and photographer Charlotte Caldwell has searched out these schools and those who attended them, and written a beautifully photographed and documented book, “Visions and Voices: Montana’s One-Room Schoolhouses.”
She will share her photos of the schools and their stories in a talk at the Montana Historical Society, 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17.
Within the book’s covers, the reader meets 126 schools and the voices of either a student or teacher who tells of what that school meant to them in shaping their life.
Author Ivan Doig wrote in the book’s foreword, “One-Room America,” of one of his most endearing characters, Paul Milliron, the narrator in his novel “The Whistling Season.”
Milliron’s life and character were forever informed by his experiences at the fictional one-room school at Marias Coulee and the great teacher who taught him there.
In an article Doig wrote praising Caldwell’s book, he speaks of America’s great overlooked frontier just before and during World War I, when Montana was “the foremost homestead state, with a quarter of a million settlers taking up some 32 million acres.”
“That colossal homesteading experience” as Doig refers to it, led to the building of at least 2,600 one-room schoolhouses, according to Caldwell’s research.
Some have returned to the dust, some were torn down for salvage, others stand deserted and forgotten. Yet others are lovingly tended by their community. Sixty are still operating as schools.
Doig said that of all the interviews he’s done in the past decades in Montana while doing research for his books, “Everyone I’ve ever talked to who attended a one-room school ... warmly remembers that experience of soaking up what the older grades were learning, along with their own lessons.” He calls it the “porosity of the classroom lessons” or “productive eavesdropping.”
One of those eavesdroppers was Gloria Cartan, who attended Wilborn School, which later was moved and became part of Canyon Creek School, still operating today.
Cartan remembers the voice of her New England-raised teacher, Jay Noble Mason, reading aloud such exciting tales as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” with the younger children relishing the literature as much as the older students.
Another benefit Caldwell discovered in her interviews was the social influence of mixed grades.
“I heard over and over again of the social maturity of kids that was beyond their years,” Caldwell said.
Older students helped younger ones to climb on and off their horses and assisted with such school room tasks as hauling water, bringing in firewood or even lifting the younger children so they could pull the school bell rope.
Mixed grades also allowed students to learn at their own pace, said Caldwell.
“I loved school and was a good student,” recalled Jim Madison, whose beloved Jefferson City School was just refurbished as a community center.
He recalls one teacher who was a naturalist who would take students up into the hills to identify trees and plants and bring some back to the school to plant. Another teacher saw how much Madison wanted to learn piano and offered him after-school lessons.
Admittedly, not all students were scholars.
Bob Wirth, who attended Wolf Creek School, would feign illness to hang out at the family ranch with the hired hands.
His fondest school memory was the Wolf Creek Harmonica Band, which gave performances far and wide, including a concert in Great Falls.
Two local schools, Placer School in Broadwater County and Travis Creek School in Jefferson County, were “summer schools,” running from spring through fall because heavy snowfall prevented students from getting to school in winter.
One-room schools were social centers for farms and ranches from miles around.
It’s where the community held Halloween parties, Christmas programs, dances, elections and graduations, said Caldwell. Everyone came to school events, even if they didn’t have a student attending.
“If people didn’t show up, people would ride out and check on them,” she said.
“The repercussions of those schools closing ... it really was sad,” said Caldwell.
A Valley County woman, Gretchen Westby, told Caldwell that North Bench School “had been the primary bond that had secured our community spirit.”
“When the school closed, the community changed,” she said. “What had been a community of farmers and ranchers that depended upon each other to help with butchering or thrashing became an assortment of people independent of one another.”
What began as affection for her local Sumner School House in Shields Valley, grew more and more as she sought out interviews,
Her first oral history, when she met Elizabeth Ruegamer, convinced her to dive into the project.
“Her stories were so wonderful,” said Caldwell. “She was 96 years old.” The brickwork of her beloved Suce Creek School was already losing its bricks.
“I realized I didn’t have the luxury of time. It was a huge push to do it. The people, their stories and the buildings were aging and disappearing.”
“This is a labor of love,” Caldwell said of her book. “I feel so strongly about these schoolhouses.”
In Saturday’s presentation, Caldwell said she “will talk about how important it is to save these schools. … The stories are simple, but profoundly enriching and important to know.
“The school houses are worthy of being saved,” added Caldwell. “They are the vessels of the voices ... they inform us of who we are and where we came from.
“I feel so honored and very enriched that I had the opportunity to meet these people. This book is a celebration of rural Montana and the richness of their spirit and heritage.”
All the proceeds from the book, which was totally produced in Montana, are being donated to the Preserve Montana Fund, a team effort by the Montana Preservation Alliance, the Montana History Foundation and the National Trust of Historic Preservation, to preserve Montana’s endangered one-room schoolhouses.
“The book is glorious,” said Chere Jiusto, executive director of MPA. “She captures the poignancy of these building that are at risk. The stories are heartwarming and the book is gorgeous to look at.
“The book is a tremendous contribution to capturing Montana history. It’s a great thing she’s doing for all of us to keep these buildings intact.”