A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

“Rescuing” community history in Bigfork

Mary Sullivan

Bigfork High School


On March 18, 2003, Eda Taylor, Director of Operations for the Bigfork Ambulance, sent a letter of appreciation to Mary Sullivan’s entire junior English class. “I remember watching a TV series about emergency responders several years ago. Week after week, we watched the medics saving lives. It seemed that after the emergency was over, all the patients came back and had a big picnic for the ambulance crew. We joked about that . . . we’d never had a picnic. There are many rewards for doing the job we do, but picnics must be a Hollywood thing. Last night’s Appreciation Dinner far exceeded any TV picnic. It truly was an honor to spend such an enjoyable evening with you.”

That dinner grew from a new component of Mary Sullivan’s Heritage Project work. During a discussion about what makes the unincorporated town of Bigfork distinctive, Mary’s ninty-two English and American Literature and Composition students realized how lucky the town was to have volunteer firefighters and quick response unit (QRU) members. Students decided to explore the question “Why are some members of the community willing to volunteer their time in order to make life safer for others?”

Throughout February and March, students interviewed these volunteers, adding additional questions to their first one: can communities survive without volunteers? What is the history of volunteer emergency units? When and how were Bigfork’s emergency crews established?

Students then hosted an Appreciation Night dinner for all of Bigfork’s emergency volunteers on St. Patrick’s Day. They planned and made a lasagna dinner, decorated the high school foyer, wrote and presented an original song, shared some of their interview findings, and created a program that listed all volunteer firefighters and QRU members.

For the school newspaper, student Kyle Verhovshek wrote that the juniors “realized for the first time that our emergency workers at the BVFD were actually the ‘V’ in BVF—volunteers....Whether our volunteers have helped you, or you’ve known someone they helped, or you just felt more secure knowing that help is willing and a short distance away, all Bigfork residents have been affected by and are thus indebted to the Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department. In a world where not everyone cares about their neighbors, we seem to have hit the mother-lode here in Bigfork.”

The study of volunteers was only part of the Project. In the fall, students interviewed area veterans and hosted a Veteran’s Day program. For the program, students read aloud key passages from the one hundred transcribed interviews that they had conducted. Folks in the audience were touched by stories such as those told by World War II veteran Ray Schletz’s who parachuted into enemy territory at Normandy: “If you weren’t scared, you were crazy,” he said,

Students concentrated on several essential questions: Why did different wars affect veterans differently? What changed while you were at war? What stayed the same? What did it mean to be from here—Montana and this area—when you were fighting a war in a foreign country?

In addition to the volunteer and veteran projects, several students added to the school’s growing collection of Women in Montana essays. Students selected interesting but little recognized area women, interviewed them, and then wrote 800 word essays from the interviews. 

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