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Early Schools in Montana
Education has been valued by Montanans from the earliest days. By 1920 children aged 8 to 14 were required to attend school for part of the year. Since many children needed to help on farms or at home, the school year was shorter in rural places.
School supplies were minimal, consisting of a slate, slate pencil, and textbooks for students that could bring them. Often children would share textbooks. Primitive furniture was common, and benches were often used. A few school rooms were forced to have children seated on the floor in their earliest days. Most had simple desks.
The harsh weather of Montana created hazardous conditions for children traveling by foot, or even by horse or mule. Blizzards could be deadly. A deadly blizzard in 1888 called The Children’s Blizzard covered northern plains and is famous for killing many North Dakota children, though Montana deaths are not as widely publicized.
As a push for consolidation happened in the 1940s, many smaller schools began to dissolve. Students began traveling to bigger towns in larger numbers. Montana still has more one-room schools than most other states.
Photo at right: School in Potomac, Montana, 1890s
In the early days teachers were often young and inexperienced. Some teachers began teaching at 16 or 17 years old. Often students were older than their teachers. As districts became more organized teachers were often college graduates of bachelor and masters programs.
Low pay meant that teachers often lived with families. A few teachers lived in the schoolhouse when there was no other place to board. As populations grew, new school buildings and teacher’s rooms were built.
Teachers usually held the responsibility of starting the stove, hauling water, sweeping, and other cleaning chores. Since supplies were often limited, many teachers supplied their own books from their small libraries.
Rote memorization was the most common learning technique. The teacher would assign a portion of the textbook for the student to learn, and then call up each grade to recite their knowledge. This continued all day, enabling each grade level to master content.
Teachers worked hard to ensure that all students received a good education. Covering all grade levels kept them busy. Strict discipline was expected and behavior standards were emphasized by the school districts.
Photo at right: School in Valier, Montana, 1909
Photo at right: Schoolteacher at desk, early 20th century
At right: Teachers often kept diaries to document their daily lives, such as this one covering 1931-1935, kept by Mydas Capps Zieg Diary
Photo at right: Etna school, south of Stevensville, Montana
Photo at right: Miss Hetty Crawford, teacher, Billings, Montana
Photo at right: Merino School, 1943
Any available building might become the school. Some were even in the homestead house of the teachers. Others were conducted in log cabins, tar paper shacks, or buildings that combined the school house with a church. Pot bellied stoves or fireplaces needed to be maintained. Simple paint on the wall was used for blackboards.
Photo at right: Rural Schools of Fergus County, Montana-Stephens School
Photo at right: Rural Schools of Fergus County, Montana-Maiden, Montana 1st
Photo at right: Eva Deem's school in her homestead house, 1914
Students were expected to sit without fidgeting and stand with attention in a disciplined manner. Whispering was not permitted. Harsh punishments could be doled out for unruly children. It was not uncommon for children to be separated into groups of boys and girls both in the classroom and on the playground.
Attendance of students could be inconsistent since children were often needed to work on the farm or help care for younger siblings. Because of this, grade levels could contain children of varying ages.
Seating could be limited. One early school had students seated on the floor. They might have benches, or the lucky ones had desks.
Traveling to and from school meant long walks of two or more miles each way. Some fortunate students rode horses or mules. Physical education was gaining prominence in the curriculum resulting in extra exertion for children.
Students brought lunch pails and enjoyed their hour long breaks. When weather prevented outdoor play, students often exercised or danced indoors.
Drinking water came from a well in the schoolyard or a bucket in the schoolhouse. This water was often hauled from one-fourth of a mile or more from the school.
Photo at right: Missoula schoolhouse
Photo at right: Huntley Project School Classroom, 1912
Schools and Social Life
Schools quickly became a hub of social life. Christmas programs were often the main entertainment of early settlers who were cut off from urban events.
Dances, music programs, and other fun activities gradually developed in rural schools. These events brought life into communities and made long winters less tedious.
Photo at right: Maypole dance at Florence-Carlton School, 1916
Photo at right: Haaven Schoolhouse - Childrens Program, circa 1932
At right: This 1921 diary of Mydas Capps Zieg documents her days as a student. She later became a teacher.
Initially most schools were small rural schools. By the 1940’s, movements to consolidate made that number dwindle. Montana still has around 60 one-room schools, including Hutterite colony schools.
Photo at right: Rural Schools of Fergus County, Montana-Utica, Montana
Photo at right: Rural Schools of Fergus County, Montana-Ayers Colony
Additional Readings on Montana Early Schools
A history of Montana Volume 2
Annual report for 1891-92. Course of study and rules and regulations of the public schools, Butte, Mont. for the year ending June 9, 1893.
Echoes from the Prairies
Fergus County, Montana Teachers 1906-1907
Junior Hi Life 1929
School Days, the circus-early Lewistown recalled
Schools of Fergus County, Montana
Missoula The Way It Was
Schools of Fergus County, Montana
1906 The Bitter Root - November Issue
Oral Histories on Montana Early Schools
Anne Needham interview, 1981 Dec. 1 (tape 1 side A)
Anna Fletcher interview, 1981 Oct. 26 (tape 1 side B)
Anna Fletcher interview, 1981 Oct. 26 (tape 2 side A)
Hazel Anderson Klotzbuecher interview, 1982 Jun. 9 (tape 1 side A)
Hazel Anderson Klotzbuecher interview, 1982 Jun. 9 (tape 1 side B)
Hazel Anderson Klotzbuecher interview, 1982 Jun. 9 (tape 2 side A)
Hazel Anderson Klotzbuecher interview, 1982 Jun. 9 (tape 2 side B)
Bud Moore discusses Woodman School
Author: Kimberly Winkowitsch
Photo and Document Credits:
Huntley Project Museum of Irrigated Agriculture
Judith Basin County Free Library
Lewistown Public Library
Montana Historical Society Research Center
University of Montana Mansfield Library