Montana’s gold rush and the lure of free farmland brought waves of fortune-seekers and homesteaders to Montana Territory between 1864 and 1918. The families who settled Montana’s rural areas throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s, valued education and soon schoolhouses dotted the landscape. These buildings became the focal point of community life, serving as a location for church services, dances, and elections, in addition to their primary function.
Crafted from locally sourced materials, Montana’s rural schoolhouses, usually one or two rooms in size, resembled a typical nineteenth-century house. Many featured small vestibule entrances with separate spaces on each side for boys and girls to store their coats and boots. More prosperous communities selected designs featuring a central bell tower. Many small schoolhouses also had an attached “teacherage,” where the teacher, often a young single woman, lived.
In the early 1900s, schoolhouses following standardized plans appeared across Montana’s countryside. These plans emphasized proper window placement, prescribing tall and wide bands of windows along the south or east wall to bring sunlight into the room. Schoolhouse plan books also gave much attention to heating concerns, outhouse placement, and site planning.
After 1918 and throughout the Great Depression the population of Montana’s rural communities steadily declined. Driven from their farms by drought, many families moved to cities. As roads improved and automobiles became more common, remaining farm families often bused or drove their children to consolidated schools.
Despite the loss of many rural schools, a strong legacy remains. Of all fifty states, Montana has the highest number of active rural schoolhouses, about 100 as of 2019. In addition, many former school buildings now serve as museums or community centers, while others sit quietly on the mountains and plains, waiting for a new lease on life.