A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

Corvallis students find that “for every good question, there is a never-ending answer”

Phil Leonardi

Corvallis High School


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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