Community Project Histories, 2003-2004
Serving at home and abroad
Bigfork students study veterans who served abroad
and conscientious objectors who served at home
Bigfork High School English teacher Mary Sullivan has spent several
years developing a veterans oral history unit. The project seemed
especially timely this year. Shortly before Christmas, Bigfork alumnus 1st
Lieutenant Matthew Saltz was killed in Iraq. He was the first Montanan
killed in that war.
Seventy-seven juniors spent the beginning of the year reading about war
and learning how to do oral histories. They found Studs Terkel’s book, The
Good War, especially helpful. The book is a collection of excerpts from
oral histories and is full of models that high school students can
Students interviewed eight veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam,
and the Gulf War. They heard stories of hardship and valor, though most
veterans insisted that they themselves were not heroic. Several said they
were only doing what needed to be done.
The juniors hosted a Veterans’ Day assembly to honor all veterans.
Several hundred people filled the high school gym. The audience included
veterans, community members, and students. The band played the national
anthem as well as the service songs from the five branches of the
military. The choir sang "God Bless America," and the juniors read the
papers they had written based on their oral history interviews.
Mary read a letter from Naoma Wilson, who wrote because she had read an
oral history on Bigfork’s website about Vietnam veteran, Mike McCann.
Mike’s story included details about Randy Totten, a friend of his killed
in the war. Randy was Naoma’s brother. She had been only five years old
when he died. "After all these years," she said "It is great learning
about Randy." Mike ended up contacting Naoma, and he said that they had a
really good visit.
Some students were surprised at all they learned. Ashley McAllister
learned that veterans’ views of war were "different from what Hollywood
created." She felt she "got a real picture when the veterans came in and
talked." Beth Bermel learned about service. "The veterans," she said,
"were willing to give their lives, if need be. This taught me a lot about
sacrifice and the things worth sacrificing for."
Of course, opinions about war are quite diverse. Students spent a
portion of the year studying what conscientious objectors had to say.
These were men who, for mostly religious reasons, chose not to fight.
Kristin Kuhn and Nichelle Whistler interviewed Norman Kauffman, a devout
Mennonite, who was a conscientious objector during World War II. "Yellow!
Coward! Conchie! These were all terms directed toward young Americans who
stood up for what they believed in," the girls wrote. Those who opposed
the war "suffered much abuse."
Kristen and Nichelle chronicled Norman’s experiences. He appealed to
the local draft board for conscientious objector status which involved
filling out forms and providing evidence of his faith. Once conscientious
objector status was granted, Norman and his brother were assigned to a
Civilian Public Service (CPS) Camp in Idaho. The camp was a Soil
Conservation Service camp, so the men worked in areas of soil conservation
such as reclamation and irrigation. Later, he was trained as a smoke
jumper, and after that, he was assigned to help transport horses by ship
The girls concluded that "the actions of conscientious objectors were
undeniably important.... Conscientious objectors performed vital services
at home while most young men were off at war." Furthermore, their actions
"epitomized the democratic ideals for which the Allies were fighting. In
standing up for their ideals, conscientious objectors exhibited patriotism
and the American spirit, and helped lead our nation into a brighter
Other students reached different conclusions than Kristin and Nichelle,
but most agreed that it takes great courage to stand up for what you
believe is right in the face of adversity and outright hostility,
especially knowing that it may cost you the goodwill of your friends and
Answering essential questions
Chester students explore how place shapes a
and the people who live there
An essential question is a big question that aims at enduring
understandings. Sophomores and juniors in Renee Rasmussen’s English
classes organized their research around this essential question: how does
place shape a community and the people who live there? The pursuit of
answers led students into conversations with local people who had profound
The question was originally prompted by the return of nationally
recognized pianist Phil Aaberg to his hometown of Chester. Aaberg has
played with the Boston Pops Orchestra as well with other performers such
as Peter Gabriel, Elvin Bishop, and John Hiatt. His album Live from
Montana was nominated for a Grammy, and a PBS performance earned him an
Students listened to Aaberg’s music, read as much as they could find,
and shared what they learned with each other. They interviewed Aaberg in
his studio at the Liberty Arts Village, which was once Chester’s Catholic
church where he played as a child. Aaberg spoke eloquently about how
Montana in general and the Hi-Line in particular have affected him and his
music, and used his grand piano to illustrate many of his answers.
Aaberg said his life and his music were deeply influenced by the
Montana Hi-Line. "Having the community be small enough that you can take
part in pretty much anything that you want and be successful at it really
changes the way you look at the world," he said. Growing up in a small
town "has made me go into the world expecting to succeed. Thinking that we
can do something makes us try things that we wouldn’t normally try."
He demonstrated his view of life in and around Chester by playing
pieces on the piano. The students were mesmerized. "I could picture some
of Chester’s beautiful views." said student Joshua O’Neil. "It was as if
the music was telling a story of its own."
Jillian Johnson agreed: "His music tells his story better than he
Though the study of Aaberg and his music was powerful, it was only one
facet of a very important project. A small group of juniors read about a
community self study conducted by Jeff Gruber’s students in Libby during
the 1995–96 school year, and this led them to read Richard Poston’s Small
Town Renaissance, a history of the 1940s Montana Study that the Libby
students had used as the model for their project. Small Town Renaissance
had been reprinted by the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, so
students had enough copies for all interested community members and
launched their own study.
They had their first meeting with community members at the end of
February. The days leading up to that meeting were nerve-wracking. "I have
never been so scared of anything my students have undertaken," Renee said.
"Our preparation would be for nothing if community members did not respond
or come to the meetings. I didn’t have control of the outcome."
She needn’t have worried. Ten community members attended the
student-led meetings. One man who skeptically agreed to come only to the
first meeting didn’t miss one. Though he was a busy businessman with many
responsibilities, he told Renee and her students that the Montana Study
meetings had become the most important meetings on his calendar. Including
students in the process of determining the future of the community is
vital to raising the next generations of leaders, he said.
A bank president skipped other meetings to attend. She said the
student-led discussions were some of the most frank, honest, and enjoyable
she’d ever experienced.
The students also praised the process. "So much can be learned when
people get together to discuss the community," said Shawnee Norick. "I
have learned more about Chester in one month than I had living here for
Part of the success was due to realistic expectations. No one expected
quick fixes or magical cures for whatever ailments their community might
have. "Whether or not we end up with a concrete improvement for our
community, this project allowed us to learn about Chester," Isaac VanDyke
said. "It gave pastors a chance to learn the history of their churches,
school administrators and school board members a chance to learn the
history of the schools, and it gave everyone the chance to learn how the
town has progressed over the years. Just learning the history of Chester
is valuable in itself. It helps community members have a better
understanding of themselves."
In addition to such group projects, both sophomores and juniors also
did individual research. This required preparation. Renee, who has learned
a few things in her nine years of doing heritage education and local
research, said, "Students can’t ask questions if they don’t know much
about the subject. They need to have some introduction to local history
before meaningful research can be done."
Part of their preparation included reading Montana People and the
Economy published by the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation. This
publication presented statistical and literary insights into the
relationship between people and the land. Then students turned to Liberty
County’s local history books, newspapers, the courthouse and library,
photos from the museum, and Sanborn maps. Once they were familiar with
such material, they expanded their research to include personal
interviews, family documents, research done by previous classes, and the
They created a variety of multimedia presentations, web pages, and
research papers dealing with topics from alcoholism in small towns to the
economic effects of Tiber Dam.
A lot of little projects add up to a big body of
Corvallis students focus on pioneers
of the Bitterroot Valley
Twenty freshmen and nine adult mentors participated in the Heritage
Project in Phil Leonardi’s geography class. The biggest challenge in
teaching freshmen, according to Phil, is that "they don’t have a vault of
experience from which to draw." This leaves them susceptible to transient
fads. "What they hold to be sacred and true is directly tied to the pop
culture of the moment." So Phil introduces them to the more lasting truths
found in their community.
This year the class focused on the homestead era. Phil asked the class
to consider several questions: Why would pioneers be attracted to Montana
in general and the Bitterroot Valley in particular? What challenges did
these pioneers face? What current trends point to similarities or
differences with the homesteading era? How will we be viewed by future
In their search for answers, students read Homesteading by Percy
Wollaston and watched the PBS presentation Frontier House. Both works
dealt with the challenges homesteaders faced early in the twentieth
century. Students relied on a collection of Evelyn Cameron’s early
photographs of Montana to explore different landscapes, fashions, and
activities of the period. To "get inside" the people, students imagined
they were one of the persons in the photos, then wrote a "postcard" home,
telling what life was like.
Students were assigned names of early inhabitants in the Bitterroot
Valley, with a special emphasis on the Corvallis area. They traveled to
the Corvallis Cemetery to complete a rubbing of their subject’s headstone.
The cemetery visit is a popular, and sometimes thought-provoking,
excursion. Robert Nicholson reflected after visiting the cemetery, "I
could not meet these people in my life but that doesn’t stop me from
learning who they were."
Each researcher then used the Ravalli County Archives and other
resources such as Bitterroot Trails III, a brief history of Bitterroot
families, to develop a written profile of each subject. Photographs, if
available, and the headstone rubbing were incorporated into the biography
to create a visual display.
This investigation was only a part of the research project. Students
also spent quite a lot of time analyzing the 1900 and 1910 U.S. Census for
the Corvallis area. They paid specific attention to average ages, marital
status, education, family size, and occupations. Each student then
selected one individual who appeared in both census years and cross
referenced that name with the database of people buried in the local
cemetery. If the individual appeared in all three places, that person
became the next subject of study.
Students also created graphs showing the historic population patterns
of selected counties in Montana from 1900 through 2000. They used the U.S.
Census Bureau website to access data specifically related to the decline
of population in eastern Montana. Students read current articles
associated with world, national, state, and local population trends. All
the information was graphed in various ways, and students wrote analyses
to explain the patterns they saw and to make predictions about future
Interviews are an important research strategy for the exploration of
place. Students begin by interviewing members of their families. One of
the questions they asked their parents was what their favorite high school
memories were. Anna Goodsell’s father told a story about getting his
father’s crane and putting the high school principal’s car on the roof of
the school. The principal probably would’ve better appreciated the
ingenuity of the stunt if students had used someone else’s BMW.
After interviewing family members, students interviewed community
members. Four students interviewed elder Irene Parker about her childhood.
They asked Irene about entertainment. "At that time there were silent
movies," Irene replied. "There was a matinee on Saturday afternoons and we
always went to that. It cost about ten cents, I imagine. There was always
a comedy and a serial, and the serial would end in a cliffhanger so you’d
be sure to come back the next Saturday to see what happened. Somebody
always played the piano, and you read what was on the screen." She went to
her first movie with sound during her first year in high school. "We went
to Butte to see Al Jolson in the Jazz Singer."
Phil’s students are younger than most heritage students, so it’s
appropriate for them to do a lot of relatively small activities throughout
the year rather than one big project. They researched and wrote poetry
about themselves. They wrote essays about their families. They wrote
essays about local buildings of which they had historical photographs and
then re-photographed them to show what has changed and what has stayed the
They read 1910 promotional materials designed to lure homesteaders to
the Bitterroot and looked for possible inaccuracies which they could
research to set the record straight. They also found time to add to their
historical photo database, which contains over 4,000 photos that previous
students had scanned.
This substantial body of work was given back to the community in
various ways: a revolving display of "Then and Now" photographs in local
businesses, a digital archives, various video productions, oral histories
with transcripts, and a community Heritage Evening.
sounds of the Upper Musselshell Valley
Students in Harlowton investigate their distant past
and economic future
Twenty-three seniors in Nancy Widdicombe’s English and Michael Murphy’s
Social Studies classes took the long view in their exploration of the
Upper Musselshell Valley. Students studied area prehistoric sites,
documented how and why the Chicago, Milwaukee and Sante Fe Railroad’s rise
and fall defined the community, and in a project called "Stayin’ Alive,"
compared how Harlowton’s businesses and families stay "alive" compared
with how they did so in past decades.
To tackle these broad topics, students learned the tools of family
research, oral interviewing, archival and photograph analysis, Global
Positioning System (GPS) technology, Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
software, and site recording to gather information. Then they honed their
presentation skills in writing essays, preparing an exhibit, and designing
web, multimedia, and text pages.
Though both students and teachers noted that prehistoric sites, the
rise and fall of the railroad, and the viability of businesses and
families seemed unrelated initially, they sought connections by defining
critical questions. With railroad workers, their questions included: What
did you learn by working at your job? How did you feel when the railroad
shut down? How did you stay here? At prehistoric sites they asked what
"marks" the past has left on our landscape. What has the distant past
contributed to life in Wheatland County now? And for historic and current
business owners: What changes have you made during your years in business?
Why did you choose this specific location? How has the viability of your
business effected you and your family?
"The intermingling of the railroader’s stories, prehistoric-site data,
and the business interviews worked far better than I anticipated," Nancy
noted. "The questions and answers shed light on each other: ‘What do you
do when your life’s dream has been cut short? Why, you simply go on.’ Over
and over, the students heard that message—the message of survival."
Each student first interviewed a retired Milwaukee Railroad employee to
learn about the kinds of employment that the railroad offered and then
what the employees experienced when the railroad left town. Students
pooled their interview information into a shared "database," and then
added to it through research expeditions to the abandoned rail yards and
research in secondary sources.
Students traveled to area ranches where State Historic Preservation
Office archaeologists helped them document tipi rings. These trace
leavings of ancient nomads are not always easily recognizable but were
immediately apparent once students entered the locations of the rocks into
GIS software. They also used GPS and GIS and created written documentation
for an early wickiup and a prehistoric buffalo jump.
After researching the history of local businesses, students interviewed
contemporary business owners. They focused on recent startups or
expansions. These interviews gave students a better understanding of the
dedication that rural people have to keep their communities healthy and
In many ways, the ancient nomads, railroaders, and businessmen of today
are struggling with the same issue—how to "stay alive" in a vast landscape
that is sometimes as harsh as it is beautiful. Students found that a
person or business can succeed in Harlo, but that it takes a real desire
to be there and energy and perseverance to make it work. "After
interviewing several different business owners, I realized that you don’t
have to go to a big city to get by," said student Krystal Robertson.
"People really can succeed in a small town."
The night of the project’s annual open house, 130 people crowded into
the Harlowton Youth Center. The multimedia presentation included recorded
voices from the interviews which provided a fuller sense of community
members’ experiences. "The railroaders had so many stories to tell, and
their thoughts and feelings about the Milwaukee leaving gave me a clear
picture of how much shutting down the railroad affected the entire town of
Harlowton," said Aaron Compton. "The Milwaukee was not just a job, but a
way of life."
Nancy noted that she "wanted all [her] students to be invested in the
project, focused, and responsible to the group." This was the reason
"almost every segment of the project involved collaborative work. The
expectations were high and they were pleased to have met them." She
believes that quality academic work done for a local audience can yield
important benefits in addition to academic skills and knowledge.
the Mission Valley
Ronan students document contemporary culture
Ronan’s Heritage Project seems to get better every year. English
teacher Christa Umphrey thinks it’s because her students are competing
with the projects done by previous classes. She may be right. The two
classes previous to this one interviewed veterans and from those
interviews, produced books that are available from Amazon.com. This class
researched contemporary culture and produced a literary magazine that
earned them a trip to Washington, D.C. as ambassadors of the Montana
Heritage Project. They presented their research to Librarian of Congress
James Billington for archiving in the library.
The theme of this year’s project was "What does it mean to be a
Montanan?" Forty freshmen studied the Mission Valley and the traditions,
nearly lost arts, well-known elders, favorite pastimes, local businesses,
and family recreation that makes their home what it is.
Students began by looking into what contemporary writers and
journalists were saying about Montana. They read newspaper features and
magazine articles on different aspects of life and culture in western
Montana and excerpts from nonfiction books by Montana authors. They read
Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm, and each student also chose one or
two other texts about Montana or texts by Montana authors to read on their
To practice their documentation skills, students documented the annual
bison roundup at the National Bison Range. They took field notes,
interviewed workers and spectators, and photographed the event. Then they
critiqued what they had done, figured out what they needed to do to
improve, and began their individual research projects.
Mary Weiss interviewed traditional beader Christina Ewing, and
documented the work of several Salish Women. Native American beading is a
traditional art form passed from generation to generation. Mary documented
the process and created a web site that outlines the steps involved in a
beading project. Christina learned the art by watching her grandmother who
passed away in 1966. "I watched her and I wanted to do more," she said.
Nicole Irving decided to find out more about the town’s volunteer fire
department. She not only interviewed firemen and photographed them in
action, she was invited to put on turn-out gear and join the department in
a practice burn.
Most of the firemen told Nicole that they volunteer because they want
to help people and give service to the community. One said he joined the
department after his best friend’s house burned. One admitted he does it
because he’s an "adrenaline junkie."
Lindsey Cornelius found that even though things aren’t as they used to
be, agriculture continues to be Montana’s biggest industry, exceeding
tourism by $1,101,400,000 in 2002. "Farming is getting much more
complicated with managing, selling crops, and being aware of environmental
hazards. You’re trying to leave the ground in better shape than you found
it," Ken Cornelius, a local farmer who raises barley and alfalfa, told
her. Lindsey asked Ken why anyone would want to farm. He replied, "I get
to work outdoors and get the satisfaction of looking back and seeing what
By the time students were finished, they had written thirty-three
articles on local culture and created a website with articles, photos, and
interviews as well as an on-line, annotated bibliography of twenty-two
Montana literature texts with links to twenty book reviews they had
written. They produced a magazine, Glimpses into Our Mission Valley,
containing the articles. They also created a multimedia presentation that
gave a brief overview of their research that they presented at Ronan High
School, the Ronan Senior Citizens Center, and at the National School
Connectivity Conference in Los Angeles.
As students looked deeper into their own history and culture, they were
also communicating with students across the U.S., in France, and in
Eastern Europe who were doing similar projects in their home places. They
compared the European students’ history, customs, and lifestyles to their
own. In addition to the nine students who traveled to Helena to join
Heritage Project students from across the state at the Youth Heritage
Festival, three Ronan students traveled to Los Angeles to share their work
with students from across the U.S. Two other students also traveled to an
international conference in Macedonia. There they shared their research
and brought back what they learned about Eastern European culture and
history to share with the rest of the class. Toward the end of the school
year, the class documented their local celebrations for a collaborative
web-based project with students from Romania, Montenegro, and Kosovo.
Roundup students add to the richness of the
Forty-four students in Tim Schaff’s Local Legacies class and sophomore
English class, Tom Thackeray’s freshman English class, and Sherry
Pertile’s quilting class completed heritage projects. Nineteen new oral
histories, on topics that ranged from coal mining in Roundup to the Bataan
Death March, were added to the community archives.
Tim’s Local Legacies students focused on coal mining. They read
sections of Montana: A History of Two Centuries by Michael P. Malone,
Richard B. Roeder, and William L. Lang for an authoritative overview of
state history. For more detail about how that history occurred in the
lives of ordinary people, they read Cowboys Don’t Walk: A Tale of Two by
Anne Goddard Chart. This is a true story of Anne’s marriage to a Wyoming
cowboy, their move to Montana, and their founding of Montana’s Northern
Plains Resource Council to fight strip mining in the Bull Mountains,
southeast of Roundup.
Students gained background knowledge of the early twentieth century by
reading primary documents and completing exercises in The Progressive
Years: 1898–1917. They located and used local primary documents during
expeditions to the courthouse, where land and court records were
available. Then they interviewed community members who had personal or
expert knowledge about coal mining. They sought balance by interviewing
people who supported coal development and people who opposed it. They
studied both sides of the issue as they have played out through history.
They compared historical photos with contemporary photos and asked what
has changed. Then each student chose a specific topic and wrote an
original research paper. The papers were complied into a book that’s
available at the Roundup Community Library.
Students in the Local Legacies class also contributed to several
on-going projects. They added newspaper articles from the front pages of
the Roundup Record to a searchable database. This year’s students
completed 1912 as well as the first five months of the years 1920–1925.
They scanned 200 historical photos to add to the searchable photo database
at the Musselshell Historical Museum. Through these multi-year projects,
students make local history much more accessible to the community by
building databases for the school-community library that can be searched
at a computer workstation.
Tim’s sophomore English students were introduced to local history by
reading Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky. They were trained to read Sanborn
maps, to search newspaper microfilm, to evaluate photographs as primary
sources, and to conduct research through oral interviews. Their individual
research papers focused on the difference between life in Roundup today
and in the twenties and thirties. Each student did original research by
interviewing family and community members. Their completed papers were
compiled into a chronicle of local and family history.
Tom involved four of his freshmen English students in the Heritage
Project. They interviewed two World War II veterans then wrote papers
comparing the veterans’ experiences with those of the Greek hero,
Odysseus. Student Wayne Schaeffer wrote about Merrill Lee, a Roundup man
who had survived the Bataan Death March. He chronicled Merrill’s sometimes
torturous experiences and concluded that "Merrill’s journey in the
Philippines was similar to Odysseus’s journey in The Odyssey in that, like
Odysseus, Merrill yearned for his far away home, met little hospitality in
foreign lands, and struggled and sacrificed to get home through all the
turmoil that surrounds wars."
Sherry’s quilting class created four heritage wall hangings. Students
made photo transfers of historic business buildings, ranches, coal mines,
and barns to create these classic pieces of art.
Roundup is one of several project schools blessed with a capable and
committed librarian. Dale Alger was indispensable. He spent the summer
researching coal mining history in the Bull Mountains in local archives as
well as in the archives of the Montana Historical Society. He gathered and
organized a tremendous amount of primary and secondary source material and
made it readily accessible to students. Throughout the year he continued
to locate articles pertinent to what students were researching. He managed
to secure copies of historical United States Geological Survey reports on
the Bull Mountain coal fields, and he helped students develop the
Weaving heritage strands
throughout the curriculum
Simms students find heritage nearly everywhere they
The teachers behind the Heritage Project in Simms have consistently set
the bar very high in terms of the range of projects attempted and the
amount of work completed. This year, teachers and students were worried
because Dottie Susag, the driving force behind Simms’ Heritage Project,
Though no one can replace Dottie and she was greatly missed, people
came together and, once again, pulled off a dazzling project. Seventy-one
sophomores, juniors, and seniors led by Sarah Zook participated in the
project. Heritage strands were woven into senior honors English (taught by
Jennie Becker), junior English (taught by Steve Lundgren and Belinda Klick),
junior U.S. history (taught by Mike Wisdom), and the computer and
technology class (taught by Sarah). Several other teachers and community
mentors helped throughout the year.
Seniors read This House of Sky by Ivan Doig as an entry into historical
research. They discussed what to research and decided to follow up on
questions they had posed at the end of the previous school year. Research
topics included the effects of the 1918–19 influenza pandemic on a small
rural community, the role of women during World War II, and
extracurricular activities through the school’s history. One team
researched C.S. Bull, a local boy who became a famous Hollywood
photographer. The findings were compiled into multi-genre essays.
Juniors began by reading the novel A Bride Goes West by Nannie
Alderson. Then they researched families from the valley by gathering basic
information at the Sun River Valley Cemetery. Each student chose a family
and one of its members in particular to research further.
They built on their cemetery research by using the Sun River Times,
which began publishing in the valley in the 1850s. The Liz Claiborne and
Art Ortenberg Foundation had purchased a digital microfilm reader for the
school library the year before, and librarian Mary Jane Johnson had spent
hours printing pages from the old newspaper and laminating them so
students could have a readily accessible research tool.
Students found lots of information but even more questions in the old
newspapers. They pursued their topics in more depth at the Cascade County
Archives in Great Falls. They looked for information about the person they
were researching as well as the events going on in central Montana during
their subject’s life. Once they collected the background information, they
interviewed a community member who knew or had knowledge of the person.
When they had some understanding who their person was, how living in a
particular time period had affected him or her, and what effect he or she
had on the community, they were ready to begin writing. They wrote poetry
about their person and "A day in the life of ..." essays. Community
mentors visited the classes to help with the poetry composition and to
give feedback on the essays.
Sarah’s students used the information the juniors collected to create a
cemetery database. They worked with plot maps, which consisted of
photocopies handed down from caretaker to caretaker with new information
recorded in pen or pencil. These maps recorded who had purchased plots but
not who was buried in them. There were x’s marking plots that were filled.
To create a better system and a more permanent record, students built a
database that included the names, birth and death dates, headstone
inscriptions, photos of headstones, and the GPS location points of each
person buried in the cemetery. They used GIS software to create a
searchable computer map of the cemetery with clickable points containing
all of the information collected for each plot. The information can be
searched in almost infinite ways. One could, for example, identify all the
people who died in 1910, or the averages ages of death in 1920 compared
with 1960. The hope is to eventually put this file on-line.
At the annual Simms Heritage Fair, students gave a multimedia
presentation telling the story of their year. After the presentation,
community members acquainted themselves with the cemetery database and
looked at copies of the annual literary magazine.
Sarah Zook has thought about why she and her colleagues work so hard on
the Heritage Project. But at the Heritage Fair, the answers are clear.
"Students need to talk to older people in the community about something
that has come to matter to both of them," she said. "They need to be
‘guided’ to accomplish a task they did not think they could do. And, most
important, they need to see that the success is not in the details on the
paper but in the details on the faces of people—people who feel more
important because they took the time to research their family, people who
‘can’t believe a high school kid did this,’ and people who anxiously watch
them make the first public presentation of their young lives."
History teacher Molly Pasma said her excitement comes from watching the
students. "Try as we might to keep the project under control, it just
seems to explode with new avenues of information, ideas, and interest—all
of which deserve to be explored," she said. "To the untrained eye, it may
seem like the students are wandering aimlessly. But what they’re really
doing is finding their way in the learning process."
Piecing history together
Townsend students find that communities are pieced
together—much like quilts
English teacher Darlene Beck and theater arts teacher Julie Diehl led
sixty-four Broadwater High School students in a study of quilts and quilt
making. They wrote research papers, interviewed forty quilters and wrote
their biographies, wrote and performed a play, created a revolving display
of quilts for the high school/community library which includes a
student-written guidebook, and registered thirty-nine quilts for the
Montana Historic Quilt Project sponsored by the Montana Historical
The project began the previous May when Darlene and Julie met with
interested students to plan, of all things, the work they’d all be doing
over the summer. It’s sometimes difficult to get high school students to
come to school during the school year much less over the summer. But eight
students willingly agreed to attend the fourteenth annual Quackin’ Quilter
Quilt Show on July 19–20 to document the event.
Students hit the ground running on the first day of class when they
were assigned to read Ann Rinaldi’s The Coffin Quilt, a historical novel
about the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys in which quilts play a
prominent role. As the foundation for their research papers, students also
researched the history of quilting in America.
With this background, they began their interviews. Darlene said that
nearly every student formed a bond with their interviewee."Who would’ve
thought that quilting could connect so many people, young and old?" asked
junior Megan Obert. She enjoyed getting better acquainted with women she’s
known all her life. Megan ended up getting a job helping out after school
at the local quilting shop.
Each student wrote a narrative about the role of quilting in one
quilter’s life and then created display boards which combined the
narratives with photos of the quilter’s work. Students pulled all their
work together and staged the Townsend Heritage Night in early December.
More than 150 community members were treated to a colorful array of quilts
hanging on walls, quilts on display panels, and quilts in a multimedia
The highlight of the evening was a play written by students in Julie’s
theater arts class. Students created twenty-eight scenes about characters
and events from Townsend history. They included scenes from such events as
Lewis and Clark passing through the county, the gold rush, and the coming
of the railroad. They wove in details from the lives of Hollywood actress
Myrna Loy (originally from nearby Radersburg), played by Emma Spurlock,
and Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin (Broadwater County native),
played by April Ludwig.
The scenes’ transitions were written by Julie and performed by Lori
Rains, Virginia Poole, Evelyn Alley, and Judy Colbert of the Quackin’
Quilters, who stitched on a quilt in front of the stage during the entire
"We did a ton of research just to write the basic script," said junior
Tyler Hunsaker. "It was actually kind of fun learning about some of the
people and events of Broadwater County."
Emma Spurlock also enjoyed the work. "The play took quite a bit of work
but it was worth it," she said. " I never knew a lot about Townsend
history before; but after researching and writing our own scripts, I think
we learned more than if we had only read a history book."
Julie joined Darlene in seeing quilting as a metaphor for community.
"Our communities are pieced together just like quilts," Julie said. "So we
titled our play Broadwater Crazy Quilt: A Patchwork of Quirky Characters
and Memorable Events."
Darlene is delighted with her students’ enthusiasm. "Students
anticipate their involvement in the Heritage Project," she said. "Their
newest question is, ‘What will we study next year?’"
From railroad town to tourist
Whitefish students write book of local history
Whitefish High School English teacher Beth Beaulieu led seventy-two
freshmen on a year-long series of expeditions, interviews, and
presentations. Students researched how Whitefish changed from a railroad
town in 1902 to a tourist resort in 2004.
They began by reading When You and I Were Young, Whitefish by Dorothy
Johnson, who graduated from high school in 1922. Students wrote essays
about how their experience of Whitefish differed from Johnson’s.
They researched a myriad of topics to help them understand how the
community had changed: the economy, the environment, the railroad,
construction, and education. They looked at life’s pleasures, such as
foodways, recreation, celebrations, and the arts. They looked at things
that sustain us, such as religion and medicine.
Whitefish in the 1880s was a backwater logging settlement known as "Stumptown."
Then the railroad came. With the railroad came workers, merchants, and,
most important, settlers.
In 1903, when James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railroad,
decided that Whitefish would be a division point for track continuing west
and track heading south, Whitefish quickly became a proper town complete
with a downtown area and wooden sidewalks.
Students found no clear answer as to when the character of Whitefish
began changing from a railroad town to a tourist town, but today everyone
agrees that Big Mountain, the popular ski resort on the mountain above
town, is of critical importance. "Whitefish relies on Big Mountain for its
economic support and Big Mountain relies on tourists spending their money
there," Erick Swanson noted. "This means that the community of Whitefish
relies on tourism for a healthy economy. Every year, several thousand
people visit Big Mountain, bringing tourist dollars to Whitefish. If these
people didn’t come to ski at Big Mountain every year, just imagine what
would happen to the economy of Whitefish."
Students heard many conversations that framed Whitefish’s development
in terms of the tension between what year-round residents need and want
versus what part-time residents or tourists need and want. Janna Rozar
interviewed longtime resident Bill Labrie about the history of Whitefish’s
commercial sector. He talked to her about how the stores have changed.
"When I was a young child, the community was basically a railroad
community," he said. "The stores were designed for working people who were
permanent residents." Today, Janna noted, many stores in Whitefish exist
because of tourists. However, locals also benefit from the rich variety of
Kenny Overcast found that there aren’t many homes in Whitefish that are
for sale, and those that are tend to be too expensive for young families.
He concluded that well-planned subdivisions might be the answer. Such
subdivisions of affordable homes could attract young families more likely
to get involved in schools as well as religious and civic organizations.
They would also contribute to the tax base.
The freshmen wrote poetry and drew maps. They created oral history
transcripts, photo boards, and a multimedia presentation that was shown at
a community open house. Their research essays were compiled into a book
entitled Our Place: Whitefish.
"My goal in the classroom is to develop self-directed learning among
students and to help them see purpose in their learning," Beth said.
"Students gained a sense of their personal connection to the community."
And they weren’t the only ones learning. "I gained insight into the
community where I teach and the importance of the community connection for
students," she said. "The Montana Heritage Project is about preparing
students for the new century."
Taking a look at our Poor Farm
White Sulphur Springs students research an obscure
bit of history
Juniors in Nancy Brastrup’s U.S. history class spent the year on a
little-known aspect of White Sulphur’s history. When Nancy asked her
students to tell what they knew about the Meagher County Poor Farm, not
one student had even heard of it. She knew she had her work cut out for
Students began by questioning family and community members about the
Poor Farm and reporting back to the class what they learned. Initially, it
wasn’t much. Many adults could recall the farm but had forgotten about it.
It had closed in 1947.
So students turned to written sources. To help gather a sense of what a
poor farm was, they read accounts of eastern U.S. poor farms. "Those
eastern accounts didn’t shine a very nice light on the subject," Nancy
said. "So the students were glad to hear that our poor farm was a useful
and positive agency."
With background knowledge about poor farms in general, they went to the
Meagher County Courthouse to learn specifics about the local poor farm. In
the basement, they found a large bound volume of poor farm records,
including the register. This gave basic information about every inmate
admitted to the farm on a day-by-day basis. It gave the name, age, reason
for admittance, where the person was from, and odds and ends of other
The more they read the more curious they became. They did research into
city and county ordinances, the county commissioner meeting records, land
records, and the sheriff’s docket and register of confined prisoners in an
attempt to answer various questions. They also used old newspapers and the
Armed with a lot of background information, they interviewed eighteen
community members they had identified who had information about the farm.
These interviews gave a more detailed picture of what the poor farm really
To provide context for the local information, Becky Teague wrote a
general history of poor farms. In medieval England, the church took care
of the poor. After the Reformation and the abolition of many monasteries,
a succession of ineffectual and often cruel laws were created. Sometimes
persistent vagrants were branded on the shoulder, and some beggars were
With the Vagrancy Act of 1601, real efforts to help the poor were made.
Poor houses were created to get the poor off the streets and back on their
feet. The poorhouses weren’t designed to be comfortable, however. Becky
noted that living conditions were intentionally harsh to persuade paupers
to escape poverty through hard work. Becky found that the harsh conditions
mostly persuaded the poor to dislike poor farms.
The Meagher County Poor Farm was created in 1896 after the state passed
laws requiring counties to take care of their citizens who were unable to
care for themselves. Students found that the living conditions at their
poor farm were much better than those in Elizabethan England.
Dellamae Lind was a child during the latter years of the poor farm’s
operation, and she was interviewed by her granddaughter, Christina Lind.
Dellamae said that the farm had a garden, cows, and hogs and thought that
the poor farm staff treated the residents well. She remembered going to
the poor farm to sing with her church choir during Christmastime and said
that other members of the church prepared gift baskets "with special
treats and goodies for the residents to enjoy around the holidays."
Members of Rose Rader’s family owned the poor farm in the late forties.
She said that the residents were nearly all elderly and unable to work.
There were sheepherders, cowboys, ranch hands, a few miners, and some old
people who had no living relatives nearby. Her husband had talked about a
man named Todd who had lived at the poor farm and who, as a young man, had
run with Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang.
The poor farm register had enough information for the students to do
statistical analysis. They found that, in at least one year, nearly half
of the residents were U.S. citizens and the rest were immigrants. The vast
majority was male and, for some reason, many of them were sheepherders.
This intrigued many students which led them to try to find out why so many
sheepherders ended up at the poor farm.
They learned how important the sheep industry had once been in central
Montana, and they also found out quite a lot about the social strata of
early Montana. Montana was a cattle state and lots of cattlemen didn’t
care for sheep or the men who took care of them.
Student Chennell Brewer heard about an incident that occurred in White
Sulphur Springs in 1916, where two men were shot and one was clubbed, all
in the same day. The three men were admitted to the poor farm for
treatment and one of the men died of his injuries. Excited by this story,
Chennell began her research.
She began her research with the poor farm register where she found the
victims’ names, dates and places of birth, and the admitting diagnoses.
Armed with this information, she pored over archived coroner’s reports,
confined prisoners registers, the sheriff’s day book, the judge’s docket,
and judge’s report, but none of the books or reports yielded any new
information. She enlisted the help of District Court Clerk Donna Morris,
but still couldn’t find anything.
Then Chennell went to the Meagher County News office to meet
editor/publisher Verle Radamacher. They looked through the 1916 newspapers
but could find no reference to the incident. A friend of Radamacher,
Marion Lucas, looked through old newspaper obituaries she was cataloguing
for the Montana Historical Society but couldn’t find one for any of the
men. Then Marion got her husband to go up to their attic to retrieve more
papers, but she still couldn’t find anything.
Chennell went to the sheriff’s office to talk to Maebeth Seidlitz who
had gone through the sheriff’s records but found nothing to do with the
names or dates associated with the incident.
Finally, Chennell and Nancy went through the local cemetery record and
map but did not find the man that died of his wounds, even though he was
supposedly buried in White Sulphur.
"As our searches failed, I became frustrated and discouraged with the
lack of information about a fairly significant event like two shootings."
Chennell said. "Why was there no information about this incident,
especially when one man died of his wounds? It seems that no one cared
about it to record it in anyway."
Not willing to give up, Chennell is planning to research genealogy
records and is also planning a visit to the Montana Historical Society.
The class’s research papers, graphs of statistical analysis, and
interview transcripts were compiled into a book: Taking a Look Back at Our
Poor Farm. When questioned about the use of "our poor farm" instead of
"the poor farm," Eric Berg said, "The word ‘our’ indicates that our
community is still involved in the poor farm’s history. It isn’t a
previous generation’s problem. It’s ours to understand and to learn from."
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