A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

One-Room Schools, Past and Present

Jerry Girard

Beaverhead County High School


The staff of the Beaverhead County Museum led by Vinola Squires approached the Beaverhead County High School staff during the winter of 2000-01 with the idea of writing a proposal to the Montana Heritage Project. History teacher Jerry Girard accepted the challenge. Together, the team decided to work with high school learners to compile a history of Beaverhead Countyís unique public school system. The county has operated over eighty schools, including one of the stateís first at Bannock. Currently there are eight separate school districts in Beaverhead County. Six of those are K-8 rural schools in Jackson, Wisdom, Grant, Polaris, Wise River, and Glen. The rural in Divide and Melrose are just beyond the county border. These rural schools, along with size of the county itself, make for a very distinctive public school system.

The Montana Heritage Project began in the fall of 2001. It included 12 learners first semester and 47 learners second semester in the Montana History class. The main question posed by the class was simple: What is it that makes education in Beaverhead County unique?

Learners began their research at the local archives at the Beaverhead County Museum, the Dillon Tribune, and the County Superintendentís Office. In addition to statistics, learners found some documents such as report cards that helped personalize the information. Their next step was to collect oral histories of former rural school learners, teachers, and parents. They even interviewed a retired professor of Western Montana College who had instructed rural schoolteachers. Each interview subject was photographed and the interviews were recorded on audio and video tape.

Accompanied by County Superintendent Dottie Donovan, the class traveled to six rural K-8 schools that still operate in Beaverhead County. At each school the researchers made photographs and shot video footage inside and out during a regular class day. They also created written descriptions, including physical measurements, and conducted interviews with all eleven teachers.

At the end of the project, the class donated several gifts of scholarship to the museum: all the oral histories and interview tapes of current rural school teachers as well as a brief interview with Dottie Donovan; written and video documentation of each currently operating rural school in Beaverhead County; a map showing the location of each of the past and present schools; a detailed time line of the history of education in the county from 1863 to the present; and more than 50 historic photos gathered from interview subjects. The time line and map will form the basis of a permanent exhibit to be mounted in the restored Argenta Schoolhouse which has recently been relocated to the museum grounds.

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