A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project
Documenting the Artistry of Croation Stonemasons
Jill MooreFergus High School
Freshmen at Fergus High School in Lewistown studied the enduring beauty and wonder of an extensive collection of local stone buildings built by Croatian stonemasons who settled in the valley during the early 1900s. Three master stonemasons from Bribir, Croatia, decided to stake their fortunes and futures in central Montana and became the founding fathers of Lewistown’s architecture, chiseling by hand enormous blocks of sandstone, mortaring them with native lime, and building magnificent structures which rivaled in style and grace those of their beloved Europe. The work was grueling, and the three men sent to Croatia for talented friends and family members to join them.
By 1920, many large, stone buildings loomed impressively in the valley. As many as 200 structures may have existed at one time. Today, perhaps forty-five stone buildings remain, some well maintained and still dignified, many ignored and crumbling. Students began by reading background information for an overall history of Lewistown and the Croatian stonemasons and listening to a presentation by the director of the Lewistown Historical Society.
As they learned more about the architecture, they became more interested. They noticed different styles of rubblework which composed the sides of buildings, and they became able to distinguish between the sophisticated ashlar stone work as well as the hand chiseled scroll craftsmanship. As word about the project spread, people began to stop students when they saw them at the grocery store or video store to give them “hot tips” about a good source if information or to share a good story or a vivid illustration of a technique. The class of amateur writers and historians had trouble keeping up with community interest. One call came from the local mortician who had just taken down some paneling in his funeral home to discover a hand-painted mural of a pastoral scene that had probably served as the backdrop for caskets during the early years of the century.
Each student selected a building then began archival research, to learn the dates of construction, recreate original floor plans, and to trace the various uses of the building through the years. They were expected to include a human interest story in their final report on their building. To do that, they identified and interviewed a community member who had personal experiences with the building. Students recorded interviews with thirty-four community members. Detailed reports on thirty buildings were published in a book called If These Walls Could Talk. These books not only contained brief histories of the stone buildings, but also stories about many of the early townspeople and significant events in Lewistown’s history. Copies of the book were sold in several high traffic areas.To print a final report for the year-end binder, click here.
© 2001 Montana Heritage Project