The population of Carbon County in the first half of the 20th century peaked in 1915.
That was the height of the homestead boom, and at that time the county had 70 school districts.
Richard Thayer is working to identify all of them.
“This is very meaningful to me because it includes many of my relatives,” he said.
Thayer, a Billings resident and a chemist and geologist, grew up in Luther, a small community northwest of Red Lodge, and attended school in Luther and elsewhere as a boy.
His grandfather was the school clerk for Luther in the early 1900s.
One day, Thayer came across his record book, which listed all the students who attended the school each school year the book was in use.
Thayer realized he could use the record book to construct a pretty thorough history of the Luther School District. He used the names in the book to track down teachers and students, and in 2007 he self-published the history.
“His research has been a gold mine for me,” said Scott Laus, historic-preservation officer for the Carbon County Historical Society.
Laus has been constructing historical maps of Carbon County. Because of Thayer’s research and many photographs, Laus has been able to build his maps.
“Pretty amazing what he’s done,” he said.
Thayer knows he can’t write histories for each of the 70 districts, so he’s focusing on the four or five around his childhood home.
But he has undertaken the task of identifying in photographs schools from all 70 districts. He has more than 100 photos, and so far he’s identified schools in 56 districts.
He’s hopeful that old-timers in the community will help him identify the rest.
“Many of the families still live in the area,” he said. “It helps them reconstruct school history.”
And residents in the area — and many who have left but return to visit — are curious about the schools they attended when they were young.
“People ask a lot about these old schools,” Laus said.
The first schools — all of them one-room buildings that served as many as 50 students — were the only community buildings these tiny towns sometimes had.
That gives the histories Thayer publishes special significance. “It turns into a history of the community,” he said.
Thayer includes lists of the students who attended, their parents, the teachers who taught there — sometimes only for a year before they left to marry a local rancher — and board trustees.
“Because I work full time, I just treat it like a hobby,” he said. “I pursue it just for fun.”
But it’s more than that. He knows time is limited. Those who remember attending the schools or teaching there won’t be around forever.
He knows he needs to do the research now while there are still people in Carbon County who remember.
“It’s to preserve something that would have been lost forever if it hadn’t been worked on,” he said.