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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Trask Hall (1878): A forgotten Montana historic school

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On a hill overlooking Deer Lodge, the seat of Powell County, is one of Montana’s historic schools, the initial Montana Collegiate Institute (1878) renamed a few years later as Trask Hall by the Presbyterian Church who then managed the school for the next two generations.  In 1921 the local school district took over the building as a public school and still today the historic hall is surrounded by other public schools from more modern times.  It sits silently today almost like a rock of education for this small Montana town.

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But as this close-up of the cupola shows, it too needs assistance to continue its third century of service to the residents of Deer Lodge.  At the same time, the past care of the school and keeping it in place as a public landmark for now over 90 years is a credit to the sense of history and community held by the people of Deer Lodge and Powell County.  Indeed north of Trask Hall is another historic school building, the Powell County High School.  

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This Tudor Gothic influenced building from 1917 reflects the pride of community, and local boosterism, of that decade when the homesteading boom was reshaping rural Montana and Deer Lodge was riding high, since it was served by two railroad lines, the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road.  Now this building is nearing its 100th anniversary and remains in use and in good shape, clearly a 20th century landmark of education and community for this county.

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The adjoining Powell County High School Gym, from the 1930s

For the modernists out there, in fact, Deer Lodge’s public schools also make their mark in 1960s contemporary design with the elementary school on Dixon Street next to Trask Hall.  There is a bit of every type of school design in this county seat.

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Deer Lodge’s traditions of preservation, pride, and maintaining their investments in public education are ones worth evaluating and implementing not just in Montana but across the nation.

 

Rural Schoolhouses in Montana, revisited

The National Trust for Historic Places has named the category of rural schoolhouses of Montana as one of its 11 most endangered places in the United States.  This designation could not have come at a better time for as I traveled extensively in eastern Montana in the second half of May I noted the number of missing schools, or those needing repair.  Let’s trust that this national designation, and publicity, will help free up resources for the adaptive reuse and preservation of these special places.

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Monarch-Neihart School (listed on National Register), Cascade County

Since the National Trust wisely put a spotlight on Montana’s rural schools, I will explore the topic in a series of posts over the next weeks.  Certainly there are many abandoned schools needing help.  Then again many property owners have found new uses for the buildings and still other communities have moved schools into museum settings, or in rare cases preserved them at the original location, and interpret the ways of early 20th century education for those of the 21st century. 

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Dell School, Beaverhead County.  It was converted into a cafe near I-15, which was a great breakfast place in 1984 and remains a great place for just about anything today.

Let me start with a brief essay I prepared for the Summer 1985 issue of Montana: The Magazine of Western History titled “Rural Schoolhouses in Montana.”  At the beginning, I observed: “Rural and small-town schools are important components of the Montana landscape and deserve our special attention.  Whether they are located at county crossroads, along dusty lanes, or in the midst of rural villages, these buildings remind us of how, as children, we once looked at the school as the most imposing structure in our lives, a place of concealed terrors and infinite wonders.  Within the schoolhouse, children of different backgrounds and ages established the shared purpose and neighborliness that are crucial to a rural community’s survival.”

“For a moment, cast aside your romantic attachments to schoolhouses and think about Montana’s schools as historical documents.  These buildings, considered in the aggregate and in the context of the regional landscape, have important things to tell us about our history.”

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Benchland school, 1984

The article highlighted five schools.  The Benchland school in Judith Basin County was a major $5000 investment in 1911 for a just established community but leaders wanted a brick school to show that they were serious and would be there for the long haul.  Benchland hoped to grow as a major village along the Billings and Northern branch line, but prosperity never happened, and the community had too much school for its size.  It was a barn in fair condition in 1984; almost 30 years later it needs help as its roof is nearing collapse.

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Benchland school, 2013

Another school highlighted in the 1985 article was Vananda School in Rosebud County, a village which then was a ghost town along the recently abandoned Milwaukee Road.

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Here was an even more evocative landmark of community dreams from the early 20th century.  The school dates to 1925, with “its tall physical presence on the flat, treeless prairie dominating much of the northern Rosebud County landscape.”  Over the 30 years since I made sure to periodically roar by Vananda as I returned to Billings for flights back to Tennessee.  I did not want to see this landmark of the homesteading era disappear.  As I concluded the 1985 essay:  “As monuments to town boosterism, as records of homesteader mobility, and as social centers, Montana’s schools physically link us to our roots as a community and a culture.”  The Vananda school remains empty today, but it still says much.

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