Over a hundred years ago one-room schoolhouses dotted the Montana landscape. Many have since faded into oblivion. Following work by photographers Charlotte Caldwell, Neil Chaput de Santoigne, and Keith Graham, the Montana Preservation Alliance has launched the “Big Sky Survey” to inventory Montana’s rural schools and educate individuals and communities about preserving them. The Alliance’s efforts have helped to locate schools and provide a written archive of each building’s history. Yet, not all rural schools are artifacts of the past. Many continue to function, though with small student enrollment, and are the backbone of the local communities. For these schools, the walls can talk, and they have much to share through the voices of the teachers and students who have entered and continue to enter these classrooms.
This project will begin to record these voices by collecting oral histories of former students and current and former teachers at rural schools. Led by Dr. Erin Zavitz, assistant professor of history at the University of Montana Western (UMW), college students, enrolled in Zavitz’s Oral History seminar, will receive training in oral history methodology and then conduct fieldwork with rural schools near UMW. Students will also research in the Beaverhead County Museum and UMW’s library to better understand the history of education in the region. The results of their work will be presented for the community. Typed transcriptions of interviews will also be archived at the Beaverhead County Museum for future use by students, scholars, and community members.
Thanks to funding from Humanities Montana, students and Erin collected over 10 hours of oral histories from community members. They shared research with the Dillon community at a public presentation. In addition, one student is creating a museum exhibit in the summer of 2017.