SALMON PRAIRIE – Well, that didn’t take long.
What began with an elderly gentleman’s simple question to the Lake County superintendent of schools – did she know any of the history behind the old South Moiese School he had attended as a boy? – turned into a massive project involving tens of thousands of documents, photographs and hours of research, and hundreds of people.
Now, more than 15 years later, it’s almost done.
Joyce Decker Wegner – the former county superintendent who fielded the request back in 1997 – is awaiting her proofreaders’ edits. She’ll soon have a final manuscript to Stoneydale Press, and next month “Lake County School History: Volume II” will be available.
Volume I came out three years ago.
Between them, there are more than 1,100 pages devoted to the history of schools in Lake County – all 280 of them.
That it’s long, doesn’t make it dry.
Wegner dug into her office’s files to come up with some history on South Moiese School for the man, and discovered something.
“There’s a lot of cool stuff in those records,” she says.
They include the names of every teacher who has ever taught school in Lake County, starting with the first, Sadie Parsons at Proctor in the late 1800s.
There were schools that existed in logging camp cook shacks. Schools that closed and were turned into personal homes by Montana governors from the 1920s and ’30s.
There was a lot of information scattered through a lot of various files, but no one had ever gathered it all together in one spot.
Not until Wegner decided to.
Initially, she planned only to write a history of the county’s small country schools, some of which existed for only two or three years and most of which were closed long ago.
“I knew retired teachers are the ones who could help me,” Wegner says. “I told them, ‘I have the documents, but you have the stories.’ We started this group that met once a month for three years.”
The Lake County Country School Historians gathered everything they needed, but there was one problem.
“Every time a school closed, it was consolidated into another,” Wegner says. Eventually, it didn’t make sense to her to write a history of schools and leave out the ones that survived or were born as times changed.
As soon as she made that decision, that added more than a century of history to research for much larger schools in places where towns sprang up, such as Polson and Ronan.
“Then it just took a whole lot longer,” Wegner says.
By then, she already knew a lot of interesting history. Most of the schools existed before Lake County itself did. Until Lake County’s creation in 1923, the southern half of the county was a part of Missoula County and the northern half was part of Flathead County.
That resulted in polar opposite histories, not to mention a quarter-century’s worth of records located in Missoula or Kalispell, and not in the Lake County Courthouse in Polson.
Southern Lake County – the part carved out of Missoula County – was once home to the nation’s largest school district, by land mass. It stretched from Arlee to Pablo, covering more than 600 square miles, and over the decades splintered into several smaller districts.
On the other hand, the northern part of the county started out with dozens of smaller school districts that gradually consolidated; most are now a part of Polson School District 23.
The upcoming Volume II, which will weigh in at more than 600 pages, will tell the history of those schools. Volume I, which is 528 pages, covers the history of the county’s southern schools.
“At first glance, a volume entitled ‘Lake County School History’ would appear to be an arid institutional study,” University of Montana professor emeritus of history, Harry Fritz, writes in the forwards of the two volumes.
“Take another glance,” Fritz advises.
There was a school in the Big Draw west of Elmo for three years in the 1930s. Sleepy Hollow School existed in a logging camp cook shack for three years. Yellow Bay had a school for three years that Montana Gov. John Erickson later purchased.
His predecessor, Gov. Joseph Dixon, turned the one-time Indian Agency School into his home.
The school closest to Wegner’s current home, Salmon Prairie, was built in the 1950s, but the original log school sits just across the gravel road next to the Swan River, where it’s used as a private cabin.
Thanks to a brief history of the Salmon Prairie School written later by Charleen Kesterson, who attended it near the turn of the 20th century, Wegner can tell you that the old school was traded to a local logger for a flagpole that was put up at the new school.
The Lake County Country School Historians grew to 127 people, and Wegner, its president, lists the other 126 as co-authors. They helped gather the stories and photographs from hundreds of more people that go into Volumes I and II.
Wegner estimates that two-thirds of the co-authors have passed away since the project began 15 years ago.
It is here in the Swan Valley, just a few miles north of the still-operating one-room Salmon Prairie schoolhouse where the enrollment is three, where you start to understand the massive undertaking Wegner and the others tackled 15 years ago.
In her office on the second floor of the log home deep in the woods she shares with husband Garry, Wegner is surrounded by just a few of the 30-plus 4-inch-thick binders filled with information and photographs collected.
She carts them around in storage tubs filled with other items, too – she can pull out ledgers containing hand-written notes detailing school board meetings that are 80 years old.
Wegner, a former Ronan schoolteacher first elected county superintendent in 1990, retired from office in 2006 just so she could devote herself full-time to finishing the two books.
It’s been an all-consuming task for 15 years of her life, and now that it’s almost finished, one has to wonder: What in the world is Joyce Decker Wegner going to do with her free time?
She laughs. She’s got three more history projects planned, starting with histories of both her family and the Grant Creek farm that was part of her family, that she’s bound and determined will be completed.
“My daughter told me,” Wegner says, “I’m the only woman who wrote a will and left a to-do list.”