A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

100-Year Histories of Three Ranches

Nancy Widdicombe

Harlowton High School


Seniors at Harlowton High School explored themes and possibilities for a year-long research project of area ranches that have been in the same family for at least 100 years by reading biographies and autobiographies, such as All But the Waltz, The Buffalo Soldiers, Soldiers Falling into Camp, and Undaunted Courage. To establish context, each student prepared a four-generation genealogy sheet of their own families.

Teacher Nancy Widdicombe held pre-interview meetings with members of each family, asking them to get ready by organizing such materials as family trees, existing family histories, family documents (journals, diaries, letters, photographs), and artifacts. She also asked them to think about sites on the ranches that students could visit, to better understand the past. Since a number of area histories had already been written, students read these materials first, so that they could ask informed questions. Students organized themselves into three teams–one for each family. Each team had a lead interviewer, a second interviewer, a videographer, and a photographer. All members of the team understood they could ask questions.

Teams created sets of open-ended questions designed specifically for each family and drawn from their preliminary research. At each interview, students gathered photographs and documents that might be useful in writing their histories. Each team was taken on a guided tour of important sites, including barns, hay meadows, lofts, buffalo jumps, and historic outbuildings or houses. Back in the classroom, they made full transcripts of the interviews and wrote reports about the site visits. They agreed that the story of each family would include material dealing with the past, with the present, and with the families’ expectations for the future. Students within each team took responsibility for writing drafts that dealt with different parts of the overall history. These drafts were combined into unified histories, which were edited before being sent to the respective families for further editing and revisions. After another draft to clarify some facts and add needed detail, the final drafts were read by multiple editors.

Each chapter was illustrated with digitized photographs and an original cover design. Students also created a PowerPoint presentation of their findings and a video of the project for a public open house. They created a website featuring photographs and excerpts from their book. The book itself, Images of the Upper Musselshell Valley, was the main product they created. They printed twenty-five copies, intended primarily for family members and the local museum and library.

But the book was on display at the Open House, which attracted 120 community members, and students received requests for sixty-five more copies. At the Open House, each group introduced the family they had researched, gave an overview of that family’s history in the valley, and discussed the work they themselves had done and what they had learned from it. At the end of the program, students received a standing ovation from their community.

To print a final report for the year-end binder, click here.
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