A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

Exploring Cultural and Physical Landscapes

Phil Leonardi

Corvallis High School


Shanda Bradshaw said she was nervous on the first day of school when she went to her “Heritage Geography” class. “When Mr. Leonardi introduced us to the idea of Heritage Geography and told us he wasnít sure what was to come either, I knew I was in for an adventure,” she said. “Little did I know what I would learn in just a semester and what kind of doors this experience would open for me.”

The 21 learners in Phil Leonardiís freshmen geography class focused their study on this question: How has the community dealt with the impact of forest fires? Interest in this question was stimulated by the historic fire season of 2000, which devastated much of the Bitterroot Valley. Learners elaborated this big question into several more focused ones: What community icons have persisted through time? How did people adapt and change due to natural disasters? What effects of the fires can be seen in population statistics?

Each student also dealt with a more personal question: Who am I and how do I fit into this community?

To prepare for researching this large question, learners were guided through an extensive series of projects to learn the repertoire of skills needed by a community geographer and historian. Their focus shifted at the very beginning of the school year when, after September 11, learners decided to shift the focus of their community studies long enough to document local reactions. They videotaped interviews with parents, teachers, and other community members about their response to the terrorist attacks. They learned interviewing skills, script writing, and story boarding to create a video, which was shown at the Heritage Open House later in the year.

Phil provided frequent direct instruction on the long-term value of the work learners do. Many of them come to agree with him that seeing themselves as related through a place and seeing that place related to other places greatly increases their understanding of the world. “The Heritage class has made be feel part of the whole, so to speak,” said Kevin Byrne. “When I do a project with the class, not only am I one with my classmates, I am also part of a legacy that will live on beyond my time.”

Learners were introduced to the five themes of geography by completing geoportraits, in which they critically examined photographs of themselves from the recent past to develop understanding of how they related to place. Max Masnick commented that because of the Heritage project, he thought about the way every town in the world has a history and he began to think about how Corvallis is related to the world beyond the Bitterroot Valley. He said that he began “to connect to the community of Corvallis through its history and its past, and to the rest of the country through my feelings.”

To develop their historical consciousness, learners examined the homesteading period, comparing and contrasting the Montana lifestyle of 1900 with their own. They read Percy Wollastonís Homesteading , visited the Montana Historical Societyís traveling exhibit of photographs by Evelyn Cameron, then each wrote a “Postcard from the Prairie” describing the everyday lives of homesteaders.

They followed this up with a re-photography project. Each student found a historic photograph of a local building and re-photographed it, showing the same scene from the same vantage point today. They mounted both photographs with a brief history of the building, detailing the various uses to which the building had been put through the years, and displayed the finished products on a rotating basis in area businesses. This collection of photographs will be added to by each class in future years.

To learn how to use quantified information about the past, learners put information from

the 1900, 1910 and 2000 census records in a spreadsheet. This allowed them to manipulate and chart the data to examine average ages, numbers of males and females, educational status, occupations, and places of birth, and to follow trends through time. With this background, each student chose one person who appeared in both the 1900 and the 1910 census for Corvallis to research in more depth. They located “their” person in a cemetery data base and used this to locate the grave. They made a rubbing of the headstone as a way of transporting data from it back to the classroom. Using the year of death from the headstone, they located the personís obituary in the archives of local newspapers. These obituaries provided basic biographical information.

The significant events from each personís life were charted on a time line the entire class created, showing important events in the state, nation, and world. Each student chose one event from this time line to research in more depth.

It was at this point that the focus returned to the fires of the Bitterroot Valley, as some of the students focused their research on those events. They reached an agreement with the Bitterroot National Forest to digitize some of their historic photographs and to provide some cataloguing assistance in return for access to the photographs and the expertise of the foresters. Learners took over 100 photographs from the Forest Service archives to the classroom to be duplicated. Using their skills in archival research and interviewing, the class, grouped into research teams, created tales of local events from the past. These were included in a video production shown to the community in the spring.

The Montana Heritage Project has been in Corvallis for seven years, long enough to become a tradition. “My brother was in the heritage project,” said Lindsay Thomas, “and ever since then I have wanted to be part of it.” That tradition is in part of tradition of inquiry. “Being in this project changed the way I see the area around me,” said Jordan Hooten. “It let me look into the world with a new sense of understanding.”

To print a final report for the year-end binder, click here.
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© 2002 Montana Heritage Project
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