Community Project Histories, 2003-2004

Serving at home and abroad
Bigfork students study veterans who served abroad
and conscientious objectors who served at home

Mary Sullivan

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 imitate.

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 to Poland.

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 future."

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 neighbors.

 

Answering essential questions
Chester students explore how place shapes a community
and the people who live there
Renee Rasmussen

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 insights.

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 Emmy nomination.

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 does."

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 fourteen years."

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 internet.

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 work
Corvallis students focus on pioneers of the Bitterroot Valley
Phil Leonardi

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 generations?

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 population distributions.

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 same.

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.

 

Sights and sounds of the Upper Musselshell Valley
Students in Harlowton investigate their distant past and economic future
Nancy Widdicombe

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 promising.

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.

 

Glimpses into the Mission Valley
Ronan students document contemporary culture
Christa Umphrey

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 own.

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 I’ve accomplished."

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.

 

Discovering undiscovered riches
Roundup students add to the richness of the historical record
Tim Schaff

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 newspaper database.

 

Weaving heritage strands throughout the curriculum
Simms students find heritage nearly everywhere they look
Sarah Zook

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, had retired.

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
Darlene Beck

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 Society.

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 presentation.

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 play.

"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 resort
Whitefish students write book of local history
Beth Beaulieu

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 shopping opportunities.

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
Nancy Brastrup

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 her.

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 information.

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 internet.

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 was.

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 enslaved.

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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