Hallowed halls: Missoula high school celebrates 100 years and two names
Hallowed halls: Missoula high school celebrates 100 years and two names

Their standards were as exacting then as now, but make no mistake: Teens in 1908 appreciated their new high school on Higgins Avenue.

"The hallways are large and roomy; the stairways not at all easy to fall down," espoused one student in the Bitter Root yearbook. "The recitation rooms are nicely furnished and well lighted and the assembly room is really a work of art."

Outside, the first Missoula County High School was equally pleasant.

"Viewing the building from a distance, it is really a handsome structure … surrounded by a beautiful sloping lawn and large shade trees," the unidentified pupil observed. "It is a great pleasure to the students to sit under these trees on warm days and feel at home."

It's the old guy on the block now - Hellgate High since 1965. Tweaked and turned, annexed and, in 1931, burned, the brick three-story building designed by Albert J. Gibson turns 100 years old this fall.

Today it's just one of seven secondary schools in Missoula County, and one of five in the city, along with Sentinel, Big Sky, Loyola Sacred Heart and Valley Christian.

It's not the low-slung, ergonomic, eye-fetching edifice they build these days, a school with a minimum of stairs that aren't easy to tumble down but with considerably less history running through their even roomier halls.

And after all these years, there's still an aspect of handsomeness.

"It's a grand building," Hal Herbig was saying the other day. "It certainly is a testimony to the quality of the building that it looks so good and has stood the test of time so well, I think. It wasn't just a slapped-together, podunk sort of thing."

Let's walk this way, Herbig urged on a visit to Hellgate last week. He was a senior roaming these halls when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, and he came back to teach orchestra in this and Missoula's other two Class AA schools from 1962 to 1984.

For much of that time, Herbig shared a classroom on the third floor with fellow MCHS alum Neil Dahlstrom (class of '39), who landed at Hellgate when the schools split in 1965. Dahlstrom stayed on as the Knights' ground-breaking choral director until 1980, when his retirement party was memorably upstaged by the eruption of Mount St. Helen.

The two men ushered Hellgate's music program into the regional prominence it enjoys today under band director John Combs and choral director Dean Peterson, both of whom Herbig and Dahlstrom admire immensely.

"This is numero uno, as far as I'm concerned," Dahlstrom said.

The music teachers were joined this day by George Gogas (class of '47), who like Dahlstrom returned to his alma mater to teach in 1957. Gogas taught art classes on the second floor at Hellgate until Big Sky was built near his home, then spent five years there before retiring in 1985 to paint full time.

It'd had been several years since Gogas stepped back into the school. He and his wife, Lynn, spoke to a class in about 2001, he said, and Gogas came away impressed.

"Geez, they were very respectful and listened to us and asked good questions," he said.

The coterie ducked out of a hallway of streaming 21st-century students and Herbig tried the handle of a door that read "No Student Access." It opened.

"I think it's back through here," he said, and led the way through a dark maintenance room to an outer door beyond.

The old teachers stepped into September sunshine and the school's delivery dock. Sure enough, Herbig had the vantage point he sought. From here, looking west, he pointed to the outline of the original school building.

Additions to the north (1921), to the south (1931) and behind the men to the east (1942 and 2002) were discernible, with Herbig's help.

"I use to tie my horse back here," Dahlstrom mentioned.

Much of his high school career in the late 1930s he spent on his grandparents' ranch in the South Hills, he explained. He'd often come back to school at nights to practice for operettas, riding his horse along what's now Southwest Higgins.

Comedian Jack Benny had a gag in those pre-war years, Dahlstrom said. "Buck Benny Rides Again," it was called, and it became a movie by that title in 1940.

"There was a story in one of the old Konahs - "Buck Dahlstrom Rides Again," he recalled with a laugh.

In 1908, Missoula was on the verge of becoming a two-railroad town. The electric streetcar was coming and, wonder of wonder, pavement on the main thoroughfares.

Progress was in the air and students were filling up the existing Missoula high school at an alarming rate. It was in the first Roosevelt School in town on South Sixth Street West, the building that today houses district administration offices.

Searching for a way to deal with the growth and a new revenue source, the local school board separated the high school from the city school system on April 24, 1906 - the official birthday of Missoula County High School. In June 1907, voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin the allocation of $75,000 to buy the Kenneth Ross lots between Eddy and Connell avenues on Higgins Avenue and build a school for high school students only.

The result was a three-story school, 125 feet long and 89 feet wide. It boasted 18 classrooms, two offices on the second floor and an assembly hall on the third, according to Stan Cohen and Sandra Fisher in their 2005 book "Purple and Gold: A 60-Year History of Missoula County High School."

Missoula High School would have been ready for the first day of school in September of 1908 but for the Great Flood in June. It wiped out the Higgins Avenue bridge, delaying construction efforts and sending a record 240 students, who came from as far away as Thompson Falls and Darby, back to Roosevelt with the grade school kids.

Classes finally opened in the new building on Nov. 16, 1908, after a reception and dance hosted by the students three nights earlier. The first class to graduate the next spring consisted of 16 girls and three boys.

According to "Purple and Gold," Gilbert Ketcham was hired as principal in 1912. He was still there when Dahlstrom, Herbig and, for two years, Gogas attended MCHS. Ketcham retired in 1945, but not before making an indelible imprint.

"Before I arrived there he had gone out around the area and recruited the best teachers that he could find," said Herbig. "Competitively, I think he was able to offer them a little more money or the chance to be on a good, sympathetic staff, where excellence meant something to the administration."

Memories dim, but Dahlstrom, Herbig and Gogas have a hard time recalling any bad teachers they had.

"It was wonderful," Dahlstrom said. "We didn't have any drugs that I knew of, that was before drug time, and we just didn't worry about drugs or drinking or anything else like that. The kids just had a big, wonderful association, that's all."

MCHS had its colors early. They were purple and gold. Some time in the 1930s it developed a nickname as well - the Spartans.

The traditions crystalized over the years, from the yearbook, the Bitter Root, which later became the Bitterroot; to the school newspaper, the Konah; to the literary magazine, the Kopee; to the annual whitewashing of the letters "MCHS" on Mount Jumbo, just east of the present-day "L."

You sit in the Hellgate cafeteria and think of who ate their lunch here before you. The "Purple and Gold" book mentions several.

Among them: Norman MacLean and his prodigious brother Paul. The Streit brothers before them, including Clarence, the first editor of the Konah in 1913, author of the acclaimed book "Union Now," and a 1950 Nobel Peace Prize nominee. The latter notice was for his work "in pursuit of … closer cooperation among the North Atlantic democracies," as Ronald Reagan put it in a letter from the White House in 1986 to commemorate Steit's 90th birthday.

Author Virginia Weisel Johnson ('28) ate here, as did journalist Aline Mosby ('39), who covered the stars of Hollywood, the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Paris peace accords.

World War II hero Hub Zemke ('33) was taken prisoner in Germany after shooting down at least 19 enemy planes. Five qualified you as an ace.

Guy Rogers ('36), who became Missoula's longtime postmaster, was shot down over Berlin in 1944 and taken prisoner. Two MCHS mates - Stan Hightower ('37) and Joe Root Jr. ('38) - didn't survive the fiery explosion.

Acclaimed historian K. Ross Toole was in Dahlstrom's class of '39. So was Doug Campbell, who joined the Marines and died in the Battle of Tarawa in 1944.

Walter Hook, one of Missoula's best-known artists, was a 1937 MCHS graduate. Actor Mary Ann Walterskirchen ('41) played on Broadway as Marrian Walters. Jim Harrison ('46) and Eldon Diettert ('48) were two of 12 smokejumpers who died at Mann Gulch in 1949.

Judith Blegen ('59), who spent 20 years singing soprano with the New York Metropolitan Opera, was in Dahlstrom's first music class in the Higgins building.

"She was so far above everybody else," Dahlstrom remembered. "I told her one day, I said, 'Judy, you don't have to come to class every day. This must be hard for you to move so slowly.'

"She said, 'Oh, no, no, no. I love this.' So I didn't say anything more. She was that kind of gal."

World War I and the Great Flu epidemic of 1918 came and went. A ramshackle gymnasium that came to be called "The Crackerbox" was tacked onto the north side of MCHS in 1921 and wasn't replaced until 1942.

In 1927, 180 of 900 MCHS students were from out of town. Those from Bonner and Milltown rode the streetcar to high school on their school district's dime. Others from farther out stayed in boarding houses during the week.

Ray Beach started a bus service for the school district in 1941. It was the birth of family business, Beach Transportation.

A 1942 expansion added the east wing, including the current "old gym" where Hellgate still plays its basketball games. The basement of the new wing included a rifle range for boys to hone their shooting eyes under the direction of Sgt. Maywood Kirkwood of the university ROTC.

Behind future world record-breaking distance runner Greg Rice, the Missoula Spartans launched a track and field dynasty in the 1930s that continued through the '50s. For 30 years, the track and football teams practiced at Victory Field, a block or two east of present-day Bonner Park.

"Wild Bill" Kelly and Ted Illman ran wild on the gridiron, track and hardcourt in the early 1920s. Athletes like Lou Rocheleau, Bob Cope, Gus Nash, Eddie Anderson, Gene and Dale Clawson, Jack O'Loughlin, John Eaheart, Tom Kingsford, Bob Sparks, Naseby Rhinehart Jr., and Bob and Jim Powell made their marks later.

The Purple and Gold boys won three state football championships and three more in basketball during the '40s, and three football crowns in four years in the '50s.

By 1951, Missoula County High School was threatening to burst at the seams. Stanford University was commissioned to create a master building plan that would deal with the growth. The study suggested buying 50 acres out of town at Hale Field on South Avenue and build a second school there.

Ground was broken in 1955, and doors opened on the school destined to be called Sentinel on Jan. 28, 1957. Enrollment was at an all-time high of 1,750. Only the 500 freshmen remained at the Higgins building.

By 1959, the MCHS student body had topped 2,000. Sophomores were sent back to the old school to join the frosh. In April 1961, the high school board announced plans to ease into two separate schools by 1965.

"Sentinel" and "Hellgate" were chosen by vote of the respective student bodies. As the deadline approached, it became a question of which building would retain the MCHS traditions - Spartans nickname, the purple and gold, the Konah, the Bitterroot, the school songs, the old trophies, etc.

"All the Spartan traditions will remain at the South Avenue building for economical reasons," the the Dec. 20, 1963, Konah announced. "Also, upper class leadership in the Higgins building has been nil for a period of six years and the Higgins unit has not been an integral part of the Spartan tradition."

Hellgate-to-be students proposed a raft of nicknames and school colors, and in early 1964 a committee of teachers and administrators whittled the list down to three. The scarlet and gold Knights won out over the scarlet and gray Huskies and the green and gold Pioneers.

Hellgate began the process of establishing new traditions. The Lance newspaper, the Halbred yearbook, the singing Chevaliers that Dahlstrom began - all have been entrenched for more than 40 years now. But there are old Missoula County Spartans who never cottoned to the change.

"We always felt the purple and gold belonged to us, you bet your boots," said Dahlstrom. "It still kind of irks me a little bit, too."


Missoula County High School and Hellgate graduates are invited to visit their old high school and take part in homecoming activities this week as the school commemorates its 100th anniversary. Parents and alumni are invited to visit classes Tuesday through Friday. The traditional homecoming bonfire is slated for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the River Bowl. The pep assembly is in the old gym Friday morning at approximately 9:30 a.m. Home sporting events include a varsity volleyball match Tuesday at 7:15 p.m., the city cross-country meet Thursday at 4 p.m., varsity football Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Missoula County Stadium, and home soccer matches Saturday at 10 a.m. and noon. Call Hellgate at 728-2402 for more information.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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