A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

Exploring buildings’ histories helps explain Dillon’s past

Jerry Girard

Beaverhead County High School


The Montana Heritage Project is something that every town should have,” said student Chris Bourassa. It’s “more than just a class. It’s a year-long exploration into one’s community, past and present.”

Twenty-two community members and organizations worked with twenty-eight students in two of history teacher Jerry Girard’s classes to create histories of the ten oldest buildings in Dillon.

They began by splitting into teams of three, choosing the buildings, and doing background research on them. They wrote descriptions of the sites, including the land surrounding the buildings, and photographed them. With this background knowledge, students were ready to begin the interviews.

Since the majority of students had never conducted an interview, they first practiced on their classmates. When they felt comfortable with their new skills, they went out into the community to interview the people they found who could tell them about their building’s history.

And some of the things they found out were pretty interesting. For instance, many students are told in their history classes that the vigilante numbers, 3-7-77, refer to the grave measurements of any unfortunate individual who got in the way of the vigilantes’ wrath. But Alexandria Havig discovered during her research of the Masonic Temple that 3-7-77 may actually have come from W.H. Bell, one of the first Masons in the state. On his deathbed, he requested a Masonic burial. She wrote that the, “seventy-seven is the number of people that gathered for Bell’s funeral, including the deceased...the three stands for the three principal officers of the lodge...and the seven alludes to the number of officers in a Masonic lodge. It is believed today that many of the Vigilantes were, in fact, Masons, explaining how this theory might be true.”

Brittny Jones said that learning the history of the O.E. Morse Dingley building will help people see why it’s a direct reflection of Dillon’s history. The top floor used to be a brothel while the bottom floor has always housed wholesale and retail businesses. If you begin at the top of the building, you start with the state’s early mining history. By the time you work your way downstairs, you’ll end up with one of the building’s current tenants, Radio Shack.

Jerry Girard said that one of the interesting insights that came out of this project was to find that many of the local perceptions of the buildings researched were incorrect. He said that the “students’ adventures took them into many areas of the buildings’ histories that the Dillon community was unaware of or has long since forgotten.” Kaley Donnelly agreed when she said that she had gone into the Heritage Project “not knowing anything about my community and, to be quite frank, not really caring to know anything about it.” At the end she said that the project “opened [her] eyes to many historical sites that [she] never knew existed.” She appreciated the opportunity to work with members of the community and to create something and give it back.

When Jake Olsen first signed up for the class, he “had no idea what he was getting into” but then said that the class turned out to be “more enjoyable than I had ever imagined. The places we were able to get into were places I never would’ve taken the time to go to myself, could never access myself, or never even knew about.” Jake was also overwhelmed by the support shown by members of the community, saying, “They wanted us to succeed just as much as we wanted to.”

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