It’s a rare school kid these days who can catch her supper in the creek during recess or earn cold hard cash hauling pails of water from the well to the classroom.
But that was the reality for tens of thousands of Montana children who were educated in country schools.
“It was an idyllic situation. I loved it,” said Mary Anne Fowells, who attended Rock Springs School southwest of Plentywood in the late 1950s.
Fowells and her older brother walked a mile to the one-room schoolhouse and a mile home every day, stopping to hunt turtles and minnows in the creek or to play in the snow.
About 14 students in grades one through eight went to the school, which had living quarters for the teacher in the basement and, in later years, running water and electricity.
“To this day, there is still that sense of connection,” Fowells said. “When I see one of the kids from school — these are lifelong friends.”
Hundreds of one-room schoolhouses once dotted the hills and prairies of Eastern Montana, paid for and built by neighbors who understood the value of education.
“When they homesteaded in small communities, the first thing that went up was a school,” said Shirley Barrick, who started her teaching career at a country school and retired a few years ago as the Fergus County superintendent of schools.
“That school became the social point. It was where they had any community gathering.”
A homesteader often donated a plot of land for the schoolhouse, and his neighbors pitched in to buy building supplies and put up the structure. Many of the buildings followed the same pattern.
Students hung their coats and left their overshoes in a cloakroom just inside the front door. Their desks faced the blackboard and their backs a wall of windows that looked out over the countryside.
A wood stove provided heat in the winter — the buildings had no insulation — and one or two outhouses sat nearby. Some schools had belfries with bells that clanged at the start of the day and after recess.
“That was a real privilege if you got to ring the bell,” said Stark Ickes, who attended Bighorn School in Treasure County in the mid-1960s.
In the early days, horses were kept in a barn or turned out in the fenced schoolyard, and pupils brought a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper or a couple of apples for lunch. In winter, their lunches froze.
Some of the schools were put together better than others.
Carpenters who pieced together the floor in one building didn’t lay all the boards flush, so students lost their pencils down the cracks. The teacher kept a box of extras on her desk.
When the box was empty, she pried up the floorboards, and students fished out the lost pencils to refill the box.
In some parts of Montana, schoolhouses were built every three or four or five miles so kids didn’t have to walk or ride more than a mile or two each way.
After a school was completed, families took a petition to county officials asking for it to be recognized as a public school. That paved the way for state funding and for teachers to receive county salaries.
County superintendents oversaw rural schools, visiting them at least once a year for inspections.
In one case, a superintendent arrived for a spring visit, but the school was nowhere to be found. The community had moved it across a frozen river that winter so it would be closer to a new crop of students.
Some schools had separate buildings that served as teacherages.
In others, a tiny room at the front or the back of the building was set aside for living quarters. A teacher had space for a bed and a chair and not much else.
The teachers were young women just out of school, and plenty of them married a local farmer or rancher within a year or two and resigned their positions.
They had to be multitaskers who could keep a dozen kids from age 6 to age 14 engaged.
Rural students benefited from lots of one-on-one time with their instructors, and they tended to learn ahead of their town counterparts because they paid attention during lessons for their older classmates.
“When I came to town, I was so far ahead of these kids,” said Carson Schaff, who attended 79 School south of Ryegate in the 1950s and 1960s. “The smaller the school, the better the education.”
The number of country schools in Montana peaked around 1940, according to a report published in 1959 by the state’s Department of Public Instruction. At the time of the report, 12,000 children were attending 900 rural schools across the state.
By the time Mary Susan Fishbaugh studied one-room schools in 1999, only 85 were left. Fishbaugh is the dean of the education program at Montana State University Billings.
“We are second only to Nebraska in the number of small one-room schoolhouses operating,” she said.
Education moved to town for a number of reasons.
Technological advances allowed farmers and ranchers to work larger and larger parcels of land. That put more space between families and reduced the number of kids in an area.
Meanwhile, transportation improved, making it easier to get to town, and families began having fewer children.
Communities were forced to close their schools when enrollment dried up, and ownership of the buildings reverted to the landowners who had donated the property decades earlier. Sometimes neighbors saved a schoolhouse by turning it into a community hall, and some were sold to individuals who made them into homes.
But hundreds of them became calving sheds or grain bins or were left to wither away in the elements, taken over by birds and mice and rattlesnakes.
“It’s really a crime for somebody not to put a roof on it and put siding on it,” said Albert Walikonis as he surveyed an abandoned schoolhouse near his ranch in Sheridan County.
Walikonis can see Thornwood School, where he was educated in the late 1930s, from the front steps of the home where he was born and raised and still lives.
“Think of the commitments people made,” he said, shaking his head. “People did this because of love, love of the land.”