Three Schools in Madison County: Three Preservation Solutions

Madison County, Montana, is perhaps best known as one of the key locations for the 1992 film, “The River Runs Through It.” Certainly the county has earned its trout fishing haven reputation, and its growth as one of the Montana gateways into Yellowstone National Park has been noteworthy in the last 30 years.

The county is also home to various rural schools.  Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Montana’s rural schools on the national map last week by naming the schools among the nation’s most endangered historic properties, let’s take a look at just three schools from Madison County and explore why they have survived into the 21st century.

The magnificent Classical Revival school at Pony, designed by Butte architect H.M. Patterson and built for just over $10,000 in 1902, is perhaps the best known historic school.  It lies at the center of the Pony historic district, a set of resources that span the town’s creation as a mining camp in the early territorial period to its affluence as a mining town in the early 20th century.  

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With its hillside location dominating the town’s landscape, the building is a point of pride for those who remain, a true community landmark.  The preservation strategy was traditional–the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places; it is maintained as a community shrine.  

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The money generator for upkeep and repairs is the adjacent school gym (c. 1920), a really splendid community center that reflects the early impact of the national recreation and fitness movement (what many of us remember as P.E. classes) in small town America.

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The residents of Pony established a Homecoming Club over fifty years ago, to organize and sponsor community events in the summer to keep the stories and memories of the town alive; the preservation of key buildings are the physical underpinning of their heritage preservation.

The fate of the Norris school–a typical 1920s community-plan school building–lies in its adaptive reuse, as a cafe near the junction of two key roads, Montana 84 to Bozeman and US 287 to West Yellowstone.  This one-story brick building was the first Montana school-to-cafe that I ever visited in 1981; then the conversion was relatively new, and somewhat startling.  But almost every account you read on Montana rural schools emphasize how they served as community centers.  For any of us who travel rural Montana today we know that the crossroads cafes and bars still serve as important community centers.

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The final, and best, preservation solution is the one that we often pass by, or forget about:  keep it as a school.  Although certainly altered and added to, the school at Harrison, where you turn to go up into the mountains at Pony, is still a vibrant contributor to the county–and not much else is vibrant in Harrison. 

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Harrison is among the decreasing number of elementary to high schools in the region–here generations are raised from the beginning to young adults and the place is ablaze with activity and community pride.  Sure, the school is no pristine architectural monument.  So?  Its value as a cultural heart of a rural community outweighs aesthetics. But it is among the best examples of why our rural schools matter in the connected world of the 21st century:  they maintain a dose of reality and community for our ultra-modern times.

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