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Book gives voice to Montana’s smallest rural schoolhouses

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“If I have learned anything in a lifetime spent overseeing schools, it is that childhood is the one story that stands by itself in every soul.”

That is the voice of Paul Milliron, my narrator of “The Whistling Season,” reflecting back on his dream-lined journey from the seventh grade in the one-room school at Marias Coulee to the highest education office in Montana, where as state superintendent he must ponder the survival of the thousand such schools he is in charge of during what he knows is going to be a clamor for change following the 1957 Russian launch of the satellite Sputnik.

It is also the chorus within the pages of the inspired project – and beautiful book – Charlotte Caldwell has achieved with her photographs and interviews that truly, almost miraculously, add up to the “Visions and Voices” of one state’s history of rural schooling.

In America’s great overlooked frontier just before and during World War I – a 20th century story that doesn’t fit readily with our other Western epics of gold rushes, covered wagons, and so on – Montana was the foremost homestead state, with a quarter of a million settlers taking up some 32 million acres, more land than is to be found in, say, the entire states of New York or Ohio.

That colossal homesteading experience, which did for the rural West what the tenements of the immigrant ghettoes did for city America – provided landing sites, quarters to hold people until they were able to scramble away to somewhere else – that particular American saga, shared by my homesteader grandparents and my homestead-born parents, ultimately cost its prairie population a lot in hardships and economic heartbreak. But I believe it is unarguable that the heroic educational efforts of those rural communities stand forth as the lasting beneficial mark of the homesteading era.

Granted, the one-room schoolhouse could have imperfections as any institution can – I gave Paul Milliron’s fictional Marias Coulee School an eighth grade of universally dreaded overage lads, some with fuzz on their upper lip as if growing moss from having been in that grade for so long – but there seems to have been a saving grace that modern schools, forced to work with much greater numbers of students and classrooms, perhaps chronically lack. Call it a porosity of the classroom lessons, productive eavesdropping.

Everyone I’ve ever talked to who attended a one-room school (and in research interviews dating back to books such as “This House of Sky” and “Dancing at the Rascal Fair,” that’s now plenty of witnesses, I say) warmly remembers that experience of soaking up what the older grades were learning, along with their own lessons – unforced extra tutelage that seems to pile up usefully in a schoolchild. Thus the school, more so than the specific grade the kid happened to be in, became the learning experience, and wouldn’t we like to have plenty of that back in American education?

The one-room era had other salutary effects. A lot of us born in that homesteaded country owe our origins not only to Cupid, but also to flirtatious Saturday night dances at those schoolhouses. One-room schools, in fact, filled many niches in the hearts and minds of rural communities – so many that they overwhelm my beset state superintendent Paul when he is faced with the prospect of doing away with those schools in the educational frenzy after Sputnik: “No schoolhouse for Election Day; for the Grange meetings; for the 4-H Club; for the quilting bee; for the pinochle tournament; for the reading group; for any of the gatherings that are the bloodstream of community.”

As that worst understatement in the English language puts it, times change. The erosion of rural population, and the coming of paved roads and school buses – and most of all, centralized budgeting of school systems – have taken us away from much of what the one-room schools represented. But not everything, as the pictorial eloquence of this remarkable book and the noble preservation effort behind it so well prove. Enter them now, through these pages, the splendidly-named one-room museums of memory. Pontricina, Hay Coulee, Lower Cracker Box, Yale, Wolf Creek, Rattlesnake, Two Pine, Delphia, Flatwillow, Dovetail. And many others. May they last and last.

Ivan Doig is a Seattle-based writer and Montana native whose acclaimed novels include “Dancing at the Rascal Fair,” “The Whistling Season” and “This House of Sky.” He wrote this piece as the foreward to “Visions and Voices: Montana’s One-Room Schoolhouses.” This essay and the accompanying photographs are reprinted by permission of Farcountry Press.

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