"Visions and Voices: Montana’s One Room Schoolhouses"
Montana History Foundation.
Charlotte Caldwell spent several years documenting small rural schools throughout Montana. The result is a handsome coffee-table volume pairing Caldwell’s full-color photographs with first-hand accounts describing Montana’s one-room schools. The foreword is by Ivan Doig. The book’s title, if not especially original, is apt; Caldwell’s “Visions” are paired with “Voices” representing each school. Caldwell occasionally has to stretch to substitute, for example, an image of a nearby school for one no longer standing, but she locates at least one schoolhouse per county and someone close to each school’s history.
Each image is framed to limit “clutter,” as Caldwell describes it. Occasional detail photos highlight architectural flourishes such as Bedford School’s unique gables, but there are few inside shots, perhaps because not many school interiors have been preserved. Caldwell’s style works best for architecturally notable buildings; less distinctive structures would perhaps benefit from showing more of the surroundings. The book’s overall design, with text on the left and photos on the right, could be more varied.
The text testifies to the importance of rural schools in early- to mid-20th-century agricultural settlements. Former students fondly recall school plays, holiday celebrations and classroom country dances. Schools served as community centers and polling places even after they closed, usually due to lack of students or available teachers. Some schools were “summer schools” with schedules designed to fit local patterns of farm and ranch labor. Though former students cite social adjustment problems when they advanced to larger high schools, most are happy with the education they received.
The book’s tone is celebratory and nostalgic, but there are also cautionary notes. A few schools are still open, and some have been restored, but many sit dilapidated and forlorn, their students bused to bigger towns lacking the values fostered by small communities. Accustomed to low-key athletics where children of various ages played mostly for fun, students were unprepared for the highly competitive, organized team sports they encountered in high school. Ranch and farm life was often hard, but modern prosperity can come at the expense of longtime residents like Sylvia Borg Kjos, who finds Richland County’s Bakken development “not good for the community.” Lamenting the loss of cultural identity fostered by rural schools, Viola Beyer, who attended and later taught at Landusky School in Phillips County, concludes that “When they lost the rural schools, they lost America.”
From former and current teachers, readers get a peek into practical decisions inherent in multigrade instruction. How should the classroom be managed? Should older children share in the instruction of younger ones? Interviewees agree that bullying was rare in rural schools, but several attribute the peaceful behavior to stern discipline enforced by teachers and parents. Hardships, especially for teachers, emerge as a basic fact of school life. Before good roads and modern transportation, teachers either boarded in students’ homes or settled into cramped teacherages; few stayed on for more than a year or two. Teachers in the few one-room schools persisting today use computer technology to counter the isolation and enlarge perspectives while retaining the traditional atmosphere.
Readers with rural school experience are likely to treasure the storehouse of memories that "Visions and Voices" represents. Along with a photographic record of Montana’s small schools, the book, a High Plains Book Award finalist in nonfiction, offers insights into rural Montana education from homestead days to, in a few cases, the present.
Bernard Quetchenbach is an associate professor of English at Montana State University Billings.