A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

Collecting Broadwater County History

Darlene Beck

Broadwater High School


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To print a final report for the year-end binder, click here.
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© 2003 Montana Heritage Project
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