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Harmon’s Histories: Missoula boys skip school to spend days in ‘truancy barn’

Missoula School Superintendent J.M. Hamilton was irate. Truancy was spiking in the fall of 1895, largely due to the repeated absences of two or three young boys.

“If the parents of these children do not give more attention to getting their children to school promptly they will be summoned before the board of trustees to explain the cause of this tardiness!” he fumed.

Missoulian, October 5, 1895

One of the gathering spots for a lot of the “bad boys of Missoula” was a barn owned by Frank Dierman, “situated near the foot of the hill north of the N.P. coal sheds.” The young miscreants had dressed it up impressively.

Around a “bright burning fire” the boys had set up a table where “15 or 16 (of them) ranging from 10 to 21 years of age, were seated playing faro (using) matchsticks instead of money.”

Constable Houtchens, who also served as truant officer, discovered the site on a December evening in 1896.

When he burst in and told everyone to freeze, boys scrambled everywhere, according to a Missoulian newspaper account. They rushed out of “doors and windows of the barn,” ignoring the order to stand.

Houtchins was able to grab only a couple of the boys who “begged piteously to be released, promising to go home and behave themselves in the future,” while still attempting to escape his grasp.

Missoulian,  December 15, 1896

“After giving them a lecture, he let them go, warning that a second offense would mean arrest and conviction.” He later visited many of their homes, delivering his message to their parents.

So it went, in the early years of Missoula education.

Of course, some “bad boys” just wouldn’t comply. Take the case of the “incorrigible Art Mahoney.”

Fifteen-year-old Art just wouldn’t mind his guardian, Mrs. William Carley, his aunt. She tried repeatedly to get the youngster to follow the right path in the years following his parents deaths.

“With tear-streaming eyes,” she told the court of the “many good things she had done for the orphan to aid him in attaining a position in life that would be a credit to himself, but in spite of it all, he was bad and wayward (and) could not be kept in school.”

So young Art Mahoney found himself standing before Judge Webster in February 1902.

Missoulian,  March 1, 1902

County Attorney Hall asked, “Why don’t you go to school? Are they not good to you there?”

Mahoney replied, “Sometimes they are and sometimes they ain’t.”

Hall then asked, “Do you want to be sent to reform school?”

Mahoney’s response: “I don’t care whether I be or not.”

Judge Webster, considering all the evidence, ordered the boy committed to the state reform school at Miles City.

Some truants were considerably less committed to their path than Art Mahoney. Such was the case with a couple of Missoula boys by the names “Kennedy and Sweeny.”

The pair, equipped with “six bits in their clothes and a dull razor in each boot, sallied forth (in 1891) with new worlds to conquer.”

The Missoula Weekly Gazette reported, “They managed to walk about ten miles the first day, but “became sad as night approached and they laid down to rest with empty pockets and empty stomachs.”

The next day, hearing a train whistle, the pair decided to “hold up the train (or) die like men.” So they “stepped onto the tracks with razors held in the air.” Confronted by the conductor, the pair folded. “We want to go home; we won’t do it anymore.”

The boys were taken aboard and delivered back to Missoula the next day.

The Gazette concluded, “They are the sorriest sickest pair of lads in the city and it is more than an even bet that they will be good, obedient boys in the future.

“The parents laugh in their sleeve over the occurrence and believe that a lesson has been taught the truants which will never be forgotten.”

By the way, you can check out Missoula’s current school truancy policy by clicking here.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.