A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

The Land and its People: Learning a Sense of Place

Jeff Gruber
Robert Malyevac
Rose Goyen

Libby High School


The Montana Heritage Project Class taught by Jeff Gruber was organized around the ALERT inquiry process. The first semester was designed so that the eighteen students in the class became familiar with the history of Libby as well as with the resources available in the for research in the community. They were introduced to a variety of research methods, including interviewing and archival searches for primary sources.

They began by reading local histories published by the Libby Writer’s Group: In the Shadow of the Cabinets, Times We Remember In and Around Libby, Tapestries of Yesterday, and Nuggets to Timber. Through group discussions, learners formed questions for further research based on these readings.

To gain a more detailed understanding of the historical record, each learner researched the history of a site and included this research in a careful documentation of the present. They photographed the site, wrote descriptions including the precise location, the purposes and uses to which the site had been put, and a history of what had happened there. Their photographs were given to the Heritage Museum for cataloging and archiving.

They investigated the way places are given meaning by writing Essays of place, which linked the history and nature of specific places to the personal meaning that made these places important to them and their families. Each student wrote about personal experiences that had influenced the writer and that had given the selected place its importance.

To deepen their sense of personal connection while learning archival research skills, each student located the legal descriptions and appraisals of the houses where they currently lived in the Lincoln County Court House. Using these records, they wrote brief histories of their houses.

They read Lincoln County’s War Record, a book compiled in 1920 to chronicle the contributions of Lincoln County to World War I. This text described the economic, scenic, and human amenities of each town in the county, and it gave learners considerable insight into how people in the 1920s thought about the future. Each learner chose a single element– such as natural resources, employment opportunities, or wildlife–and wrote an essay comparing Lincoln County in 2001 to Lincoln County in 1920. As part of their research, each student was asked to get an insight from someone who had lived in Libby for at least 40 years.

This was followed by a concentrated focus on the interview process. The class invited Brad Phillips, a 76-year resident of Libby, to be interviewed in class. Learners asked questions, took notes, transcribed the session, and typed the questions and responses into a document summarizing some of Mr. Phillips’ life. After this “fishbowl” interview, each learner interviewed a person of his or her choice, transcribed the tapes, then conducted a follow-up interview to be sure the transcription was accurate. They then wrote narratives based on the interviews.

During this process, students discovered that ordinary people could and did accomplish great things in their lives.

With this background in historical research and the community’s history, students used their academic talents to complete several service projects. For the Montana Heritage Project, students contributed materials to the 1910 Expedition. They searched microfilm copies of local newspapers for interesting or significant events that occurred during 1910, and retyped these articles so the text could be placed online. They searched the local museum archives for photographs of Libby in 1910. They interviewed a woman who was born in 1910 and had lived her life in Libby. They put all these materials on the Project website.

For the local mill operated by Stimson Lumber Company, students completed a brochure detailing the manufacturing process as it occurs today. This included researching the impact of the local company on the community. Learners wrote questions, interviewed workers, and took a photographic tour a the plywood mill and finger joint operation. This led to both an illustrated web site and a color brochure.

Students also added to the collection of large-format historic photographs that classes have been placing in area businesses. Five new photographs, including informational labels, were completed and placed at Millworks West, A1 Conoco, Saverite South, Stimson Lumber Company, and Munro Realtors.

According to Jeff Gruber, the project begins to work “when students realize that what they are doing is real work” and not just classroom exercises. “I ask more of students in this class,” he said, “And I meet some resistance and arguments early in the year. But, as the year goes on, most students begin to understand that it is a different class and that there are different outcomes expected.”

Each student did a culminating project based on research into a topic of his or her choice. Each student presented the research question and the findings to a Community Heritage Evening, held on April 25 and attended by 160 community members. Each student provided copies of the final research essay, a photographic display, and a PowerPoint presentation. A replica of a historic Kutenay canoe was on display. The presentations were informative and entertaining, using both words and images, and many community members stayed long after the presentation, examining displays and interacting with learners. The final research products were donated to the Heritage Museum.

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