Community Project Histories, 2002-2003

Exploring buildings' histories helps explain Dillon's past
Jerry Girard, Beaverhead County High School

The Montana Heritage Project is something that every town should have," said student Chris Bourassa. It’s "more than just a class. It’s a year-long exploration into one’s community, past and present."

Twenty-two community members and organizations worked with twenty-eight students in two of history teacher Jerry Girard’s classes to create histories of the ten oldest buildings in Dillon.

They began by splitting into teams of three, choosing the buildings, and doing background research on them. They wrote descriptions of the sites, including the land surrounding the buildings, and photographed them. With this background knowledge, students were ready to begin the interviews.

Since the majority of students had never conducted an interview, they first practiced on their classmates. When they felt comfortable with their new skills, they went out into the community to interview the people they found who could tell them about their building’s history.

And some of the things they found out were pretty interesting. For instance, many students are told in their history classes that the vigilante numbers, 3-7-77, refer to the grave measurements of any unfortunate individual who got in the way of the vigilantes’ wrath. But Alexandria Havig discovered during her research of the Masonic Temple that 3-7-77 may actually have come from W.H. Bell, one of the first Masons in the state. On his deathbed, he requested a Masonic burial. She wrote that the, "seventy-seven is the number of people that gathered for Bell’s funeral, including the deceased...the three stands for the three principal officers of the lodge...and the seven alludes to the number of officers in a Masonic lodge. It is believed today that many of the Vigilantes were, in fact, Masons, explaining how this theory might be true."

Brittny Jones said that learning the history of the O.E. Morse Dingley building will help people see why it’s a direct reflection of Dillon’s history. The top floor used to be a brothel while the bottom floor has always housed wholesale and retail businesses. If you begin at the top of the building, you start with the state’s early mining history. By the time you work your way downstairs, you’ll end up with one of the building’s current tenants, Radio Shack.

Jerry Girard said that one of the interesting insights that came out of this project was to find that many of the local perceptions of the buildings researched were incorrect. He said that the "students’ adventures took them into many areas of the buildings’ histories that the Dillon community was unaware of or has long since forgotten." Kaley Donnelly agreed when she said that she had gone into the Heritage Project "not knowing anything about my community and, to be quite frank, not really caring to know anything about it." At the end she said that the project "opened [her] eyes to many historical sites that [she] never knew existed." She appreciated the opportunity to work with members of the community and to create something and give it back.

When Jake Olsen first signed up for the class, he "had no idea what he was getting into" but then said that the class turned out to be "more enjoyable than I had ever imagined. The places we were able to get into were places I never would’ve taken the time to go to myself, could never access myself, or never even knew about." Jake was also overwhelmed by the support shown by members of the community, saying, "They wanted us to succeed just as much as we wanted to."


"Rescuing" community history in Bigfork
Mary Sullivan, Bigfork High School

On March 18, 2003, Eda Taylor, Director of Operations for the Bigfork Ambulance, sent a letter of appreciation to Mary Sullivan’s entire junior English class. "I remember watching a TV series about emergency responders several years ago. Week after week, we watched the medics saving lives. It seemed that after the emergency was over, all the patients came back and had a big picnic for the ambulance crew. We joked about that . . . we’d never had a picnic. There are many rewards for doing the job we do, but picnics must be a Hollywood thing. Last night’s Appreciation Dinner far exceeded any TV picnic. It truly was an honor to spend such an enjoyable evening with you."

That dinner grew from a new component of Mary Sullivan’s Heritage Project work. During a discussion about what makes the unincorporated town of Bigfork distinctive, Mary’s ninty-two English and American Literature and Composition students realized how lucky the town was to have volunteer firefighters and quick response unit (QRU) members. Students decided to explore the question "Why are some members of the community willing to volunteer their time in order to make life safer for others?"

Throughout February and March, students interviewed these volunteers, adding additional questions to their first one: can communities survive without volunteers? What is the history of volunteer emergency units? When and how were Bigfork’s emergency crews established?

Students then hosted an Appreciation Night dinner for all of Bigfork’s emergency volunteers on St. Patrick’s Day. They planned and made a lasagna dinner, decorated the high school foyer, wrote and presented an original song, shared some of their interview findings, and created a program that listed all volunteer firefighters and QRU members.

For the school newspaper, student Kyle Verhovshek wrote that the juniors "realized for the first time that our emergency workers at the BVFD were actually the ‘V’ in BVF—volunteers....Whether our volunteers have helped you, or you’ve known someone they helped, or you just felt more secure knowing that help is willing and a short distance away, all Bigfork residents have been affected by and are thus indebted to the Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department. In a world where not everyone cares about their neighbors, we seem to have hit the mother-lode here in Bigfork."

The study of volunteers was only part of the Project. In the fall, students interviewed area veterans and hosted a Veteran’s Day program. For the program, students read aloud key passages from the one hundred transcribed interviews that they had conducted. Folks in the audience were touched by stories such as those told by World War II veteran Ray Schletz’s who parachuted into enemy territory at Normandy: "If you weren’t scared, you were crazy," he said,

Students concentrated on several essential questions: Why did different wars affect veterans differently? What changed while you were at war? What stayed the same? What did it mean to be from here—Montana and this area—when you were fighting a war in a foreign country?

In addition to the volunteer and veteran projects, several students added to the school’s growing collection of Women in Montana essays. Students selected interesting but little recognized area women, interviewed them, and then wrote 800 word essays from the interviews.


Collecting Broadwater County History
Darlene Beck, Broadwater High School

All one hundred of Darlene Beck’s junior and senior English students joined Heritage Project expeditions this year. Changes in teaching assignments gave Darlene the opportunity to "grow" the impact of the Project in the Townsend community from a single class to the full contingent of upper class students, their families, and all their mentors and interviewees.

Darlene and her students explored three components of community history: veterans’ experiences; personal memorabilia collections; and 1910 institutions, businesses, and activities.

The junior English students tackled researching Broadwater County from 1910 to 1920 by first looking at existing county histories and museum scrapbooks. Then they embarked on their own journey through Townsend’s three early newspapers and family journals. Although each junior selected a particular topic to examine (music of the time, the community-building benefits of early sports, the effects of railroads, for example), each student studied the era in addition to his or her specific subject.

"Students read the newspapers with fascination and were deeply absorbed in the news and stories of the time period. They paid particular attention to the style of writing and were shocked at the lack of ‘political correctness’ that they found," Darlene observed. "They were equally shocked at the harsh and often cruel punishments that were handed out during the same period."

Darlene’s senior English students tried an innovative strategy for exploring their community’s past: selecting personal collections of memorabilia and then researching the objects collected, the collector, and his or her motives. As Darlene told her students at the outset, "Many collections tell the story of an individual’s interests, values, and history as well as the time period and place that the collector lived."

Senior-class researchers first learned how and why museums collect artifacts, and then each selected a community member’s collection to study: maps, teacups, keys and locks, typewriters, beads, buckles, firearms, and much more. Students interviewed each collection’s owner, photographed the collection, researched the context of the collection, and wrote an essay of their findings. Some students teamed up with their collector to display portions of the collections in the Broadwater County Library.

Students asked their interviewees why they collected the items that they did, what the collection had meant to them, and what they had learned about history from the collection. Darlene reported that the project yielded what she hoped. "It gave students valuable insights," she said. "When looking back in time, we might get a sense of daily life through books and movies. Even then, much is left to the imagination and we often forget about the simple everyday items that can hold story after story of fascinating history. What better entry into the history of a community than by studying the artifacts of the day!"

Callie Kimpton worked with area historian John Stoner to understand his interest in collecting and using historic maps. Callie wondered, "Why such a passion for maps and preserving history?" John explained that "there is a historical importance in learning and teaching what our pioneer era looked like." Through her investigations, Callie found that, "while some maps provide vague descriptions, others, such as an eight-foot by eight-foot hand-drawn oil cloth map of the Crow Creek Valley, are amazingly specific. Drawn by a rancher for a water rights legal battle, this map depicts every home, every chicken coop, and every stream in the valley as well as the only known evidence that a legendary mining settlement, Old Center City, actually existed."

Several years ago, Darlene inadvertently began a tradition when her students did a Veterans History Project. Townspeople were so impressed with that project that they have looked forward to it every year since. Each new class of students is introduced to Broadwater County residents, and visa versa, through the interviews they conduct. They then plan an afternoon of songs, poetry and other readings, and refreshments to honor the veterans on or near Veterans Day.

People are noticing the contributions to the community made by the Townsend Heritage Project. For instance, a local family who was touched and impressed by the students’ research, donated thirty software licenses to the school, and the Broadwater County Museum Board showed their faith in the students by inviting them to research and write new material for the county history book, and to correct errors in the existing text.


Accomplishing something "rather important" in Liberty County
Renee Rasmussen, Chester High School

The contributions of the Heritage Project toward a better understanding of local and state history was recognized when two Chester High School seniors were invited to help with a day-long workshop at the annual Montana History Conference. A packed room of Montana historic preservation advocates along with staff from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, listened as Bryan Ghekiere and Andrew Thorness described the Chester students’ research into a 1917 basta brick house built by Estonian homesteaders and their efforts to have the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

For the second year, Renee Rasmussen’s junior English class prepared a column for the Liberty County Times entitled "This Week in Local History." Students located historical news items that complemented current issues, such as fund-raising for a swimming pool, dealing with drought, and putting family ranches on the market. Each week the column identified the contributing student and the sources that he or she used. Among other sources, all of the students used research done by Renee’s previous classes. In writing these columns, students quickly became familiar with a wide variety of research material.

Each students also researched a family heirloom and a specific historic building or place. Renata Munfrada found the heirloom research a valuable experience. "As I talked with my mom and my grandma about this little silver jewel," she said, "the conversation became much more than just a part of a homework assignment. I spent time with them and we discussed our family, where we came from, who we are, and what we stand for."

Teams of students also researched and wrote Essays of Place ( Mitchell Clark thought that one of the most important parts of his research paper was including the bibliographies. They helped him realize, "how important it really is to show which sources were used. Without reliable sources nothing could be trusted as fact. It is also important because without including a bibliography page the researchers that worked on the material before would receive no credit for their hard work."

Other student teams designed and uploaded newly researched or written material for Chester’s website ( They did quite a lot of work on, among other things, a Chester timeline which begins at 1900 and ends with the seventies. They included quite a few photos and student research papers on a variety of topics for each decade.

Through his research into Chester in 1910, Mitch Violett went from being indifferent to his heritage to becoming an eager researcher. "Before this paper, I could not have cared less about my family heritage and how the Chester community began," he said. "But the more I began to research and the more I studied that period of time, the more interested I became and the more I wanted to find out."

All of Renee’s nineteen juniors seemed to have learned valuable things during the year. Shyann Norick learned that it’s "important for people to record what they find because one can never be sure what will be essential in the future." Courtney Fraser said, "I learned that the people in our community have great memories to share. What they were missing until the Montana Heritage Project came along was someone who was willing to listen." And Amanda Hofer found that all of her work was worthwhile: "I realized that after I finished this paper I had accomplished something rather important."

Future researchers will probably agree.


Corvallis students find that "for every good question, there is a never-ending answer"
Phil Leonardi, Corvallis High School

Geography teacher Phil Leonardi has participated in the Montana Heritage Project almost since the Project began so one might think that he had the process down, that his lessons would be automatic or even boring. But that’s not the case. After eight years, Phil still finds the Project and his students’ discoveries exciting. And, along with his students, he is still learning. "There is something exciting about watching young people mature and eventually grasp the concept that they stand on the shoulders of others that came before them, that they have an individual and collective heritage that binds them together," he said. "For awhile I mistakenly compared them to a newborn calf taking his first steps—slow and shaky. I now understand that the process is much more like letting young calves out of the corral in the spring of the year to new green pastures. The students, like those young calves, experience a metaphorical opening of a gate and the results are the same: they run, jump, stretch their legs, frolic, experience life, and from time to time, get into trouble."

Twenty-three freshmen, along with twenty staff and community members, participated in the Corvallis Heritage Project. They completed an astonishing array of projects. They studied homesteading by reading Homesteading: A Montana Family Album by Percy Wollaston and comparing Wollaston’s life with their lives today; studied some of Evelyn Cameron’s photographs and then chose an individual from one of the photos and tried to explain, via a "postcard home," what life was like during that era; and they watched Frontier House, the PBS documentary about how people of today coped with living in homestead-era Montana.

Students did their research in various archives. They researched early inhabitants of the Corvallis area and Bitterroot Valley at the Ravalli County Museum archives; studied Montana’s population by exploring the 1900 and 1910 census records and then cross-referencing those records with a local cemetery database; did tombstone rubbings and brief biographies of people that appeared in both the 1900 and 1910 census and were also buried in the local cemetery; and used various newspapers, local histories, and photos to demonstrate that the various "selling points" promoters used to get homesteaders to buy land in the Bitterroot Valley during the homestead boom of the 1910s were very often false.

Several projects were sent to the Montana Historical Society for archiving. The archived projects include five oral interviews—complete with tapes, tape logs, and transcripts—about growing up in the Bitterroot Valley in the early part of the twentieth century, and hundreds of digitized images relating to the lives of the interview subjects. Some of the images date as far back as the late nineteenth century and all of the images were catalogued for reference purposes. They also created a web-based digital archives of selected historical photos collected over the years.

Students presented their findings at a special Heritage Night and in a revolving display of photographs placed in various businesses in Corvallis. They also displayed some of their historic memorabilia in a display case the Ravalli County Museum donated to the school.

According to their comments, students value the information and skills learned through their participation in the Project. All of them expressed appreciation of their new knowledge. Leah Pelkey summarized the consensus of the class: "All of these activities help us to understand our past and our community, as well as our families and ourselves. We can look, through photos and research, into the past of the place where we live, our town one hundred years ago. The knowledge we have gained explains why things are the way they are. We now know so much more about Corvallis."

Mark Wax said, "Before this class, I assumed that archives were dark, sinister places occupied by bitter old women who wanted to make you miserable. Now, I see that all the people there enjoy helping you and teaching you all that they know. People love to share their stories."

And Maria Peterson provided the headline quote when she said, "For every good question, there is a never-ending answer."


Building bridges in Harlowton
Nancy Widdicombe, Harlowton High School

"I have learned much about the Hutterites in the past four weeks," said Jeff Eagleton, one of Nancy Widdicombe’s ten English IV students. "The Hutterite people have lived in the shadows of many different stereotypes. They are seen as a simple kind of folk who fear change, enjoy nothing, and live very sheltered lives. The truth is that the Hutterite people do not take part in the many things the ‘outside world’ takes for granted, but they enjoy being alive and everything they do."

Jeff reached that thoughtful conclusion after the class conducted an in-depth study of area Hutterite colonies. They chose that focus after asking which community groups were overlooked or less understood than others. In early discussions, students owned up to their own limited if not biased understandings about these neighbors. So they began their research by watching documentaries and reading secondary histories of the Hutterites in Europe and North America. Students wanted to grasp the historical context that had brought the colonies to the Upper Musselshell Valley.

By Christmas, Nancy and her students had contacted the Duncan Ranch, Martinsdale, and Springwater colonies and been invited to continue their local research with onsite visits that would include interviews and conversation with members of those colonies. In fact, students were invited to colony Christmas programs. By January, class members had outlined the specific questions that they wanted to pursue during their quarter of concentrated work.

The three colonies invited students to learn about their beliefs, history, and lifestyle. The class quickly found that each colony had its own personality and patterns. But they also were coming to understand commonalities: primary beliefs, the basics of colony organization, the substance of daily life, and the organization of work and the roles of various members. Students were able to spend a full day at one site and additional time at the others. They were invited to shoot a wide range of photographs. Students peeked into German and public classrooms, watched women preparing food, documented state-of-the-art electronic farming practices, visited churches or meeting halls, and toured private apartments. Colony members readily shared information about their days.

Students also learned more about Hutterite schooling from the District School Superintendent and district-hired teachers. The three colonies enjoy a somewhat unusual inter-local agreement that brings public school teachers to the colonies for kindergarten through eighth grade instruction.

After the site work, the class began analyzing their information, organizing images, and divvying up topics to be presented in a self-published book as well as in two different PowerPoint presentations. Both gifts of scholarship benefited from student Betsy Suckow’s professional-caliber photography.

On March 22, students invited the entire Harlowton community to a program that they organized. Although Nancy feared that the turnout would be far smaller than that elicited by previous projects, more than 120 area residents poured into the Youth Center to hear and see what the students had learned. She was especially thrilled that representatives from the colonies also attended.

The following week, students took their program to each of the colonies so that more community residents could see the work that resulted from their assistance and information.

Mariah Breding found that "the Montana Heritage Project opened a door between two cultures. Through the project, all of us in the English IV class became bridges between two communities."

Wylie Galt expressed his hope that the project "will help some of the rumors and myths be put to rest" and that "the Hutterites will be able to live with ‘the outside world’ with better understanding."

Student photographer Betsy Suckow said that she had "learned much about our similarities and differences and to look beyond what the eye sees."

Nancy Widdicombe was most pleased with how her students came to be better reporters and historians. "They discussed among themselves how important the ability to observe and record, without judging, is in this world."


Libby students document the present
Jeff Gruber, Libby High School

History teacher Jeff Gruber has been involved with the Heritage Project since the Project began and believes it’s firmly entrenched in Libby. "More and more teachers refer to it as one of the programs in the high school that displays student excellence," he said. "Parents talk about how they look forward to their children being in it when they get in high school. Two new teachers have joined, broadening the Project’s reach. Community members offer ideas for research. True results take time to measure but after eight years, I feel the jury is no longer out. It works."

During the 2002–2003 school year, more than forty individuals and groups worked with twelve students in the Heritage Project class.

Students began the year writing essays of place and local legacies research papers, following the ALERT learning model. They wrote about such varied topics as family members, notorious characters from Libby’s past, the volunteer fire department, and former Governor Marc Racicot (who grew up in Libby). They also participated in the Expedition to 1910 by researching the Western News archives and creating a poster of various news articles from that time period.

All of this work was in preparation for their major project: a community documentation project focused on the closure of the Stimson Lumber Company.

The mill employed 330 workers, which made it the towns largest employer. The company announced in 2002 that they wold close the mill unless it got help from the community in two ways: a more stable supply of lumber and a solution to its increasing workmen’s compensation bills that were being exacerbated by the W.R. Grace asbestos contamination.

Jeff’s students asked broad questions about Stimson’s operation in Libby: Why do they make plywood and not lumber? What other jobs depend on the mill? Who is the Stimson Lumber Company? To answer these questions, students researched and produced a pamphlet illustrating the process of making plywood, from the arrival of logs to the yard to shipping the final product. Students presented copies of the pamphlet to employees on the last day of the mill’s operation.

Since many students had ties to the mill, this project had a special meaning for them. When Jeff asked the class what their favorite project was, they nearly unanimously said the mill pamphlet.

Jeff received a pleasant surprise in April when he was contacted by the George Lucas Educational Foundation to see if one of their writers could visit Libby to learn more about the Heritage Project. Writer Ashley Ball arrived in Libby on May 5 and stayed nearly the entire week. She interviewed teachers, students, and community members and helped to create a multi-media exhibit on the George Lucas Educational Foundation web site ( The site includes slide shows of students documenting the Stimson Mill, reading at their Heritage Evening, and working on various other projects. The site also features a streaming audio of student Amanda Shotzberger reading an excerpt from her research paper about one of Libby’s early movers and shakers: John H. Geiger

Ashley found in Libby students, teachers, and community members who see the value and importance of taking a good, hard look at their local history. Student Anders Larson said, "It’s really opened my eyes and let me see what we once were and what we could potentially be."

And students enjoy what they’re doing and how they’re learning. Taylor Sweet said, "There is more involvement in the learning. You’re not just taking notes, studying, and then taking a test. What you do and learn really means something to you and others around you." Kyle Koehler took it a step further when he said, "It is the most self-motivated learning process than any other class I’ve taken."

History teacher Bob Malyevac and English teacher Jon England also did Heritage Projects this year. Bob’s focus was the building of Libby Dam and Jon’s focus was the history of all the schools in Libby.


Ronan students take an expedition to the sixties
Christa Umphrey, Ronan High School

Several years ago, Ronan High School adopted the Expeditionary Learning education model school-wide. English teacher Christa Umphrey has dovetailed her Heritage Project with her assigned expedition. It’s a good fit, since in the expeditionary model, students do extended, in-depth research into a topic they all share. Last year’s expedition focused on the 1960s, so forty community members were interviewed by forty juniors about different aspects of life in the sixties. During all the students’ projects, they were asked to focus on one of several essential questions: Why do people rebel? What is worth fighting for? What was our community like in the 1960s?

Students began their study by researching how the national events of the sixties related to and influenced the local community. Each student had a specific year in the decade they were focusing on and they spent a few mornings at the local newspaper office looking through newspapers from the decade and collecting events, news, and photos from their year. They also researched what the biggest national stories were during their year, so they could compare national and local happenings.

While focusing on the Civil Rights Movement and the American Indian Movement, students read numerous speeches and articles, examined historical photographs, and analyzed documentary film clips. After gaining some knowledge of the issues and events of the time, they invited local people involved in the events to come to class and share their experiences. Students conducted whole-class interviews so guests could answer questions.

During the study of the Vietnam War, students read articles and speeches and listened to music from the time period. They read poetry and stories about the war as well as more recent articles dealing with the aftermath of the war. Then they met with local veterans to talk about specific war experiences. They also discussed the current war in Iraq among themselves and with each Vietnam veteran. They also documented their community’s reaction to the Second Gulf War.

Dan Mays said that he liked everything about the interview. "It taught me a lot I didn’t know, about my dad and about the war. My dad actually fought in the field, with bullets firing above his head. I never knew he was actually in the war."

After students completed research on their specific year, each created a visual display that compared national and local events of the time. A few students also used the research to make two web-based timelines: one that compared national and local events and another that just collected all the local events from the decade.

Students also used the knowledge they gained about civil rights issues and the Native American struggle for rights to create a children’s book for younger students. Each junior created one page about a topic of his or her choosing. Each did individual research to write text and to find images, and then designed the page. The pages were collected and bound together, and copies of the book were made for each third grader.

A book entitled A Community and Country Divided: Vietnam, containing the interviews with the veterans, will be available to the veterans and other community members as soon as the editing and printing are complete. This book will be professionally printed and perfect-bound so the extra wait is worthwhile. Judging from the comments from community members Christa and her students received after the publication of last year’s book which focused on the stories of World War II veterans, the people of Ronan think the extra wait is worthwhile, too.


Students research seditious aliens, patriots, and elk in Roundup
Tim Schaff, Roundup High School

The Heritage Project in Roundup is slowly, but surely, getting bigger. This year, there were four teachers that coordinated the efforts of forty-one students and twenty-nine community members.

In Tim Schaff’s English II class, students read English Creek by Ivan Doig and then used Sanborn maps, newspaper microfiche, photos, and interviews to produce a multi-media presentation that chronicled the history of Roundup from 1908–1945 called "Letters Home." Students used the information they gathered to create composite characters that write to one another. One letter was read by a character on the screen, portrayed by a historical photo, while a student, live and in period costume, read the answer.

In Tim’s Local Legacies class and Tom Thackeray’s Research Writing class, students wrote research papers on a variety of topics. They read Joseph Kinsey Howard’s Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome and learned about primary documents and how to use them by completing exercises in The Progressive Years 1898–1917, a publication of the National Archives and Records Administration. They then visited the courthouse a few times to learn how to access the various records kept there. Finally, teams of students interviewed and photographed several community members.

Then they began writing.

The papers cover such diverse subjects as the historical and current elk population of the Bull Mountains and Snowy Mountains; the Bataan Death March; coal mining in the U.S. in general, and Musselshell County in particular; the history of a local homesteading family; the history of baseball in the county; a sensational murder; and a thirty-seven page paper on the U.S.A. Patriot Act, comparing that Act with the World War I Alien and Sedition Act. These papers are what earned a team from Roundup the opportunity to represent the Montana Heritage Project at the Library of Congress in May.

Students in Sherry Pertile’s Quilting II class studied buildings that existed in Roundup in 1910. They started by examining historical photos in the photo archives at the high school and then moved on to the Sanborn maps to try to locate the buildings and newspapers to document the uses of them. They finished their study by creating five wall hangings with photo blocks of the buildings.

High school librarian, Dale Alger, continues to be an invaluable member of the team. According to Tim Schaff, "His expertise in photography, research techniques, and technology are in constant use by the members of the Project." Several teachers in Roundup have been overheard to say that they "have the best librarian in the state."

In addition to the research and writing Roundup students did, they continued to copy, caption, and archive historical photos from the Musselshell Valley Historical Museum, which allows the public greater access to them while protecting the originals.

Another on-going effort that began just this year was the creation of a database for the local newspaper. Students have entered nearly 2,000 front-page articles from the years 1908–1920 in a searchable database which is also available to the public.


Working as a team in St. Ignatius
Luke Brandon, St. Ignatius High School

The twenty freshmen, sophomores, and juniors in Luke Brandon’s Montana History Through Literature class began the year by doing individual research projects that ranged from researching their family history to compiling histories of Kerr Dam or Fort Connah. All the research projects had to have an oral history component so in addition to primary and secondary research, students had to find an expert in the field to interview. Two freshmen traveled to the Nine Mile Valley to interview a man whose sheep had been decimated by wolves, several interviewed family members about their family history, and at least two students went to the University of Montana to interview professors about their research topics.

Joseph Mitchell, who wrote a paper on Marcus Daly, interviewed history professor David Emmons. "Professor Emmons was great to talk to," he said. "I read part of his book (The Butte Irish) to get ready for the interview but I still wasn’t ready for how much he knew about Marcus Daly and William Clark. I was interested in the war between the Copper Kings and that period of Montana history, so Professor Emmons was fascinating to listen to."

Luke assigned the oral history component of the students’ individual research projects to help prepare them for their main project which was a history of the St. Ignatius Volunteer Fire Department. Students did some legal research to find the state laws that established and govern volunteer fire departments. They then spent three weeks doing newspaper research to find historical stories that had to do with fires and the fire department in St. Ignatius. Finally, they interviewed current and past members of the department. They also interviewed elders in the community to learn how fires were fought before there was a fire department.

Community elder Edna Wheeler recalled that, "we all had our own fire truck." She told the students that many people had wagons about the size of a bathtub that were used for personal fire trucks. When there was a fire, they hooked their personal fire trucks up to horses, trotted to the fire, and then used buckets to put it out.

Luke found the interviews to be one of the most important aspects of the Project. He said that by interviewing community elders, students "began to understand that the older members of their community are a resource for them to better make sense of their own world."

When the students had collected all the information they had time to collect, they began their final products. They created a display about the fire department that was set up in the school and is available for the department to use for their events, and they created two web sites. One of the web sites featured the individual research papers ( Personal/INDEX.HTM) and the other focused on the fire department ( Department/Home.htm).

Students also painted a large map of Montana on the back wall of Luke’s classroom which highlights the most interesting things they learned during their individual research projects.

Junior Annie Mitchell found value in the teamwork the projects required. "In the beginning no one realized how much work we’d have to do or how well we’d have to work together to complete this project. Because of this class, we got to know each other better and learned to appreciate the small things, like help with a transcription or getting advice on a project or finding the perfect quote. Our class came closer to becoming a team."


Simms students figure it out together
Dorothea Susag, Simms High School

One day while students were collecting resources for their research papers, Simms English teacher Dorothea Susag heard a girl in the far corner of her classroom announce in frustration, "I don’t know how to do this!" Before Dottie could intervene, another student crossed the room. "That’s okay," the second student said, "we can figure it out together."

That moment defined Heritage Project work at Simms this year. Several classes—the computer applications class, Seniors Honors English students, and junior history/English scholars—worked together to explore the Sun River Valley as it existed in1910.

Students began their expedition to the early part of the century by interviewing family and community members and then transcribing those recordings for local and state archives. Next, students solicited original photographs of Vaughn, Sun River, Fort Shaw, and Simms from the years surrounding 1910. They located several significant new photographic collections and digitized and cataloged more than 300 images that are now available for other researchers.

Mid-year, Dottie immersed her students in the economics, politics, culture, and technology of 1910, drawing in part on material that Project Director Michael Umphrey had prepared for the 2002 Teacher Institute. In their heritage scavenger hunt, students read magazines, novels, and newspapers of the period, watched movies about it, listened to its music, and studied its fashions.

With that context, one set of students used maps, photographs, and oral histories to reconstruct the appearance of the main street in each of the four communities in the valley. Another group selected a single newly-found photograph from 1910 and teased questions from the image about the history, geography, and culture of the era and of the valley. Everyone worked to create a time line that placed the Sun River Valley’s 1910 experiences in the context of the nation and the world. Students added new dates to the time line as they worked at putting local stories into historical perspective.

Students drafted essays, poems, maps, and PowerPoint presentations, conducting additional research and interviews as needed. Dottie and fellow teachers Sarah Zook, Mary Jane Johnson, Belinda Klick, and Chuck Merja pushed their students to find concrete, specific information that would shed light on several big questions: What’s changed? What’s lost? What’s gained? What stories hide behind what we’ve believed and thought was true? What’s stayed the same in the Sun River Valley and our four towns? Why? Part of the fun was to refuse to settle for easy answers.

In the spirit of figuring it out together, each student essay or presentation was read by student peers, teachers, and mentors. The Senior Honors English class then polished the material one last time before its presentation in Simm’s sixth Stories in Place literary magazine and in their PowerPoint presentations. "Even though my I thought my paper was done, it had just begun. I learned how to revise, edit, and correct, " Dani Fleming wrote in her evaluation of the Heritage Project.

At the beginning of the year, Whitney Hall worried that the amount of research required would jeopardize other school work and activities. As she pored over a Sunnyside Store photograph and kept searching for information about it, she found that "as the work progressed into more depth, it became more enjoyable." She pushed herself to excel as she realized that "speaking to the community encouraged me to perform to the best of my ability. I did not want to let them down."

Simms used their March Heritage Fair to thank community mentors and to introduce a new community advisory council formed to provide community support to the school. In exhibits, songs, poems, audiovisual presentations, and dances, they also showcased their answers to their big questions about the similarities and differences in the valley between 1910 and 2003.


Researching historic schools in Meagher County
Nancy Brastrup, White Sulphur Springs High School

History teacher Nancy Brastrup launched the Montana Heritage Project in White Sulphur Springs High School this year with six junior and senior students in an elective class. The year proved adventuresome for this first-year band of educational explorers.

Class members decided to research and document the historic ghost town of Castle. Situated high in an island mountain range of the same name, Castle once boasted three newspapers and a vigorous community life that stands now in stark contrast to its skeletal remains. The ghost town looms large in area consciousness, so taking students to the site and introducing them to historical photos and community museum exhibits served as a great introduction for additional Project work.

Students then learned web-building skills kicked off through a workshop by Michael Umphrey. They used their Castle photographs and research to create their own web pages (

Nancy’s class investigated additional historic buildings in the town of White Sulphur Springs itself, but met many obstacles, not the least of which was the closure of the public library due to structural problems. They learned that original research is often slow and frustrating and good scholars are patient and persistent.

The class found pay dirt when researching six of Meagher County’s once-operating sixty historic one-room schoolhouses. County Superintendent of Public Instruction Julie Hanson offered direction and encouragement. The records stored in her office gave students a rich cache of primary source documents to study as well as leads to potential interview subjects, including former students and teachers. Students also located a number of historic photographs.

The class identified several historical patterns. Most obvious to them were the effects of school consolidation and the loss of population in many areas. Few of the county’s rural schools are still open. They also saw how weather, parents’ need for children to help with farm and ranch work, and changing enrollment forced educators to be flexible about schedules and attendance rules.

Nancy’s students puzzled over teachers living in teacherages and earning well under a $1,000. They observed that punishment for misbehavior was more physical than it is today. They came away with an understanding of how remote many corners of Meagher County had been, especially when roads and vehicles were less reliable. And they noticed that even though there were few formally organized sports or recreation programs, people clearly knew how to create their own fun.

Interviewees remembered such things as the treats associated with special Christmas programs, the fun of a school play, and the excitement they felt when they could team up with students from another school for sports events or spelling bees. Most spoke of having few modern conveniences. Jim Fuller, for instance, remembered, "If we left our lunches in the cloak room on cold days, our sandwiches would have ice crystals in them at noontime." At Lingshire School, students had to get water from a nearby coulee and heat from a wood stove. The school had 140 library books, eight maps, one globe, a phonograph, a flag, and good water.


Back to Autumn 2003 Table of Contents
Back to Heritage Education