My Forty Years Scribblin's
Historical Accounts
The Struggle for Knowledge Continues

This was originally written in 1969 as a history of the Seeley Lake High School and printed as a feature article in the January 19, 1970 of The Missoulianunder the title From Horse Barn to Modern School. The piece was re-written in 1992 and published as you see it below in the May-June 1993 issue of The Montana Journal.


Education survived a protracted struggle in Montana but made gains slowly after putting down its fragile roots during the state's infancy. Montana's children, born to hardiness, walked miles, rode horseback, or traveled by horse and buggy from farm and homestead to reach little log cabin schoolhouses which sometimes operated only a few months each year as dictated by the bitter winter weather.

In some areas, as in the Swan Valley, when homesteaders located too far away for their offspring to travel, settlers simply went together and built another little log schoolhouse. These small buildings were often the hub of community social life as well. In the Coeur d'Alene area, logging companies helped to acquire schools. At St. Ignatius, in the 1960s, Mrs. Mary Finley Niles, then in her mid-nineties, told me that she had learned homemaking skills as well as her three Rs at the Ursuline school for Indian children operated by the Catholic sisters. Then, when the Jocko school, a boarding school for Indian children, was in operation around the turn of the century, she made "all the pretty red and gray uniforms worn by the girls residing there."

I attended school at the first bona fide schoolhouse in Evaro, a no-nonsense, high-ceilinged frame building heated by a pot-bellied stove. There was no basketball court, no music room, no library books, but we were lucky. We enjoyed a teeter-totter and someone had shinnied up a big pine tree and put up a swing.

As related by my now-deceased aunt, Stella Johnson Mackie, a company of black soldiers from Fort Missoula, when on bivouac, would make their first night's encampment on the Evaro schoolgrounds on their way north to Polson. They brought along musical instruments. After the evening meal, the local people would gather to hear the band concert, a rare treat for the isolated residents. Years later, an enterprising teacher promoted a basket social to buy a Victrola and half a dozen records so our school could be introduced to classical music. Before the end of the school year, this same teacher obtained permission to use a grassy yard beside the store building, had the Victrola carried there, and helped us perform a maypole dance. She directed the setting of the maypole and provided the pretty crepe paper streamers herself. The parents and every lumberjack in the area came to lean on the fence and view this unusual spectacle.

The DeSmet and O'Keefe schools were a four-mile walk from our LaValle homestead. The teacher at DeSmet, Miss Hilda Nyberg, would call us in a few minutes early at noon and wash all our (eleven) faces and slick back our hair— "because we might have company."

As recently as the 1950s, after the logging boom had hit Seeley Lake, the little one-room schools burst their seams, and students were packed into shells of old buildings abandoned by the departing smokejumpers. One of these was shored up underneath and the cracks battened with rags and newspapers. The school board was begging for a new building but could get no help. In desperation, a delegation journeyed to Washington, D.C., to plead their case. Upon hearing that some Seeley Lake students were being educated in a refurbished stable, one congressman said, "Ah can just smell those hosses." The result was that Seeley Lake got a new schoolhouse, four modern rooms that have been outgrown, improved, and expanded.

Seeley's need for a high school brought forth another battle upon which a branch of the Missoula County High School was granted—after several years of transporting students to Missoula on what was termed the longest school bus ride in the United States. Those early school buses were a team of horses and a wagon or a truck covered with canvas and warmed by a woodstove.

Nor were there any hot lunch programs, although some teachers solicited ingredients from the parents or drew from their own small salaries to provide hot soup or cocoa in the coldest winter weather. These early teachers, who lived and worked under less than ideal conditions and who went the extra mile to stimulate underdeveloped "bumps of knowledge," are our unsung heroes. From the rudiments of the ABCs and the three Rs, they formed the foundations to support the framework of our present-day school system.