Montana's Rural Schoolhouses

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.

Upper Madison School

Rancher Steve Hutchinson’s granary acted as the Upper Madison School’s first classroom. There Jennie Rice taught area children during a three-month summer term held in 1887. In 1890, Steve and his wife Katherine donated an acre on the northeast…

Pine Butte School

Gallatin County, Montana’s first settled agricultural area, had many small communities upon statehood in 1889. State law allowed as few as four residents to petition for the financial assistance needed to establish a school district. Gallatin County…

Middle Creek School

Long journeys to school on wintry mornings and children unused to being away from home prompted rural school architecture to mirror domestic dwellings, making youngsters feel more at home. This school is an excellent example of the practice,…

Malmborg School

Built in 1905, Malmborg School is one of the most architecturally interesting one-room schoolhouses in Gallatin County. The one-story octagonal school originally sported an open front porch with wooden Doric columns resting on high plinths. An open…

Lower Bridger School

Homesteaders followed miners on the heels of the 1860s gold rush as Gallatin County became Montana’s first extensive agricultural area. By the late 1880s one-room schoolhouses dotted the countryside, sometimes no more than five miles apart. School…

Reese Creek School

The Reese Creek School, built in 1906, is one of 77 one-room schoolhouses built throughout Gallatin County mainly from the 1890s into the early 1920s to serve the families of one of Montana’s first agricultural regions. In the earliest days, classes…

Dry Creek School

Gallatin County, one of the original nine counties established in 1865 during territorial days, was Montana’s first extensively settled agricultural area. Homesteaders followed miners in the late 1860s and established schools in private homes or…

DeBorgia Schoolhouse

Remnants of ancient Indian trails, the Mullan Trail, the Milwaukee and Northern Pacific Railroads, and old Highway 10 are scattered across the narrow mountain corridor, where this schoolhouse was constructed in 1908. The few remains are evidence of…

Stark School

Pine and fir surround the clearing upon which this little-changed landmark has stood since 1915. At that time, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company located its logging operations in the Ninemile Valley. Stark School was built in anticipation of…

Etna Schoolhouse

The Homestead Act of 1862 drew settlers to the Bitterroot Valley and by the end of the decade, the newly settled community of Etna had established one of the first local school districts. A two-room log schoolhouse was built near this site in 1871.…

Ingomar Public School

As hundreds of farmers and ranchers homesteaded the arid, treeless plains of northwestern Rosebud County, the townsite of Ingomar was platted along the tracks of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway in 1912. That year, one teacher and a…

Silver Creek School

Montana Avenue was a wagon trail when the first students trekked across treeless pastures to class in 1888. The bell rang out over the valley promptly at 8:40 AM, letting children know that they had better not dawdle and were expected at their desks…

Target Range Elementary School

Proximity to Fort Missoula’s target range gave the Target Range School its name. Area residents organized the school district in 1893. The Army built the first school, soldiers from the fort hauled the students’ drinking water, and many who attended…

Evaro School

For eighteen years after the Evaro School District was created in 1902, its students attended school in area homes and barns. In 1920, the district purchased this site for fifty dollars, where it constructed a one-story frame building. The first…

Howard School

Children first attended school in a log cabin at this site in 1882, the year the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its line through the Yellowstone Valley. The railroad brought growing numbers of homesteaders, and in 1904 the community replaced the…

Eagle Butte School

Fort Benton’s first school opened in 1868, over twenty years before statehood. As Montana’s population grew, so did its commitment to education, fueled by the belief that a successful democracy demands an educated populace. Upon statehood (1889), the…

Big Arm School

The 1887 Dawes Act gave Congress the power to survey Indian reservations, assign land (allotments) to individual Indians, and open the remaining land to homesteaders. Although tribal leaders, including Chief Charlo and Sam Resurrection, resisted…