A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

Researching historic schools in Meagher County

Nancy Brastrup

White Sulphur Springs High School


History teacher Nancy Brastrup launched the Montana Heritage Project in White Sulphur Springs High School this year with six junior and senior students in an elective class. The year proved adventuresome for this first-year band of educational explorers.

Class members decided to research and document the historic ghost town of Castle. Situated high in an island mountain range of the same name, Castle once boasted three newspapers and a vigorous community life that stands now in stark contrast to its skeletal remains. The ghost town looms large in area consciousness, so taking students to the site and introducing them to historical photos and community museum exhibits served as a great introduction for additional Project work.

Students then learned web-building skills kicked off through a workshop by Michael Umphrey. They used their Castle photographs and research to create their own web pages (http://www.folkways.org/WhiteSulphur/studentprojects.htm).

Nancy’s class investigated additional historic buildings in the town of White Sulphur Springs itself, but met many obstacles, not the least of which was the closure of the public library due to structural problems. They learned that original research is often slow and frustrating and good scholars are patient and persistent.

The class found pay dirt when researching six of Meagher County’s once-operating sixty historic one-room schoolhouses. County Superintendent of Public Instruction Julie Hanson offered direction and encouragement. The records stored in her office gave students a rich cache of primary source documents to study as well as leads to potential interview subjects, including former students and teachers. Students also located a number of historic photographs.

The class identified several historical patterns. Most obvious to them were the effects of school consolidation and the loss of population in many areas. Few of the county’s rural schools are still open. They also saw how weather, parents’ need for children to help with farm and ranch work, and changing enrollment forced educators to be flexible about schedules and attendance rules.

Nancy’s students puzzled over teachers living in teacherages and earning well under a $1,000. They observed that punishment for misbehavior was more physical than it is today. They came away with an understanding of how remote many corners of Meagher County had been, especially when roads and vehicles were less reliable. And they noticed that even though there were few formally organized sports or recreation programs, people clearly knew how to create their own fun.

Interviewees remembered such things as the treats associated with special Christmas programs, the fun of a school play, and the excitement they felt when they could team up with students from another school for sports events or spelling bees. Most spoke of having few modern conveniences. Jim Fuller, for instance, remembered, “If we left our lunches in the cloak room on cold days, our sandwiches would have ice crystals in them at noontime.” At Lingshire School, students had to get water from a nearby coulee and heat from a wood stove. The school had 140 library books, eight maps, one globe, a phonograph, a flag, and good water.

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