UNIONVILLE — Wally Jester was just a toddler when he first peered through the windows of the one-room schoolhouse in Unionville, when his family first moved to the former mining town in 1953.
“The teacher told me to go home,” Jester said Thursday. “I’d get my chance.”
Before Jester was old enough for kindergarten, the school, built around 1897, had closed, and the local kids now were being transported to Helena.
The schoolhouse now has a sagging roof, some decrepit doors and a lot of peeling paint. But a makeover is imminent. Last week the Lewis and Clark Historical Society received a $4,000 grant from the Montana History Foundation’s Preserve Montana Fund, setting the stage for a couple of weekends of heavy lifting by Jester and community volunteers this fall.
The grant comes just as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private group, named Montana’s rural schoolhouses, collectively, as one of its 11 most endangered historic places in the nation for 2013 — a list that also includes the Astrodome in Houston, the Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Chinatown House, the James River in Virginia and the UFO-shaped Worldport Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
The school was built, like many in Montana, during the heyday of frontier life in the 1890s and early 1900s. Once, the state had 2,600 rural schools.
More than 60 one-room schoolhouses are still in use as schools and many, like the Unionville structure, still function as occasional community centers and meeting places.
For many decades, though, the schools tied together communities and far-flung rural residents while serving as beacons of education and civilization in an otherwise rough and wild country.
“Truly these are iconic and humble structures and treasures,” said Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance.
Charlotte Caldwell’s book, “Visions and Voices: Montana’s One-Room Schoolhouses,” has raised about $54,000 for the Preserve Montana fund in sales since it was published in August and another $75,000 in other donations from all over the country.
Funds for the Montana History Foundation also come from numerous other donors including the Florida-based Mary Alice Fortin Foundation.
Caldwell toured all 56 Montana counties and photographed about 125 schools for the book, and spoke with numerous former students and teachers.
It didn’t take long for Caldwell to realize the schools’ value as portals, of a sort, to the time when the schoolhouses bound together communities over years and generations.
Jester understood that when he returned to Unionville around 1995 and there was a reunion of the schoolhouse’s students. Some of the alumni had babysat him, he said.
Many of the schools around the state “are on their knees,” Caldwell said Thursday, but still represent some of the oldest and best-preserved examples of frontier architecture. Each is unique, but most follow common building patterns — functional and simple.
And they are at a critical state in their life, say preservationists, ready to go either in the direction of preservation, or neglect and disrepair.
The Montana Preservation Alliance is preparing a statewide survey of the schoolhouses to catalog their locations, from the middle of towns to what looks like the middle of nowhere.
“We don’t know who owns them. We don’t know how many there are,” Jiusto said.
The schoolhouse in Unionville has been the site, over the years, of Easter egg hunts and Christmas parties and meetings on noxious weeds and wildfire danger. Its interior remains in relatively pristine condition.
Jester, who lives next door to the schoolhouse on a site his parents bought from the former schoolmistress, said the roof will be the first to receive attention. The grant will pay for materials, mostly, and the labor will be a crew of volunteers Jester feels confident about raising.
The book and the national designation are both increasing awareness of the small schoolhouses and lead to greater funding for preservation efforts, say the local historians.
Preserve Montana Fund
The Preserve Montana Fund distributed $13,000 to stabilize rural schoolhouses in 2012 (including the Radersburg School) and this year’s grants total $20,210 toward the schoolhouses in Unionville, Jefferson City Lewistown, Havre, Dillon and Bozeman.
The funds require a 25 percent match by the communities, which can come in the form of volunteer labor.
The schools have a personal connection for many. Jester said that his grandmother, for example, taught school in Sieben Flats long ago, and met Jester’s grandfather while working there.
Ray Read, president of the Lewis and Clark County Historical Society, said his mother was a “schoolmarm” in Trotter, north of Wibaux.
“I’ve always loved this schoolhouse,” Read said. “It’s a true one-room schoolhouse.”