Missoula photographers’ book preserves images of Montana’s last one-room schools

In March, we ran a story about an exhibition of photographs taken at one-room schoolhouses all over Montana.

The exhibit at MSU Billings documented the travels of Neil Chaput de Saintonge, a Missoula photographer, and Keith Graham, an associate professor of photojournalism at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.

They said at the time that they hoped to publish a book about their project as well. We are happy to report that the book, “Chasing Time: Last of the Active One-Room Schools in Montana,” was recently published by Riverbend Publishing, of Helena.

It is a fine collection of photographs and an admirable work of historic preservation. As Graham points out in the introduction, there were 212,000 one-room public schools in the United States in 1913, and a century later that number had dwindled to an estimated 200.

Montana had the distinction of having more one-room schools, 67, than any other state. Chaput de Saintonge and Graham visited more than a third of the active one-room schools in the 2013-14 academic year, and they report that three schools have moved into non-operating status since then.

The book gives a short history of one-room schools and also clarifies that “one-room” is a term of art; none of the schoolhouses they visited had only one room. One, in fact, had six rooms, including a gym and separate lunch room. But they are all classified by the Montana Office of Public Instruction as one-room or one-teacher schools.

“Thus,” they say, “a one-room school is a school where one teacher instructs students of multiple grades from kindergarten to eighth grade, though some teach kindergarten through sixth grade.”

One-room schools cannot have more than 18 students, and some employ instructional aides, depending on the number of students.

The book also includes a map of the state, showing the location of each one-room school in Montana. Here in the Billings region, apparently, we are too civilized. There are no one-room schools in all of Yellowstone County, and in the seven counties contiguous to Yellowstone, only two have one-room schools — three in comparatively small Stillwater County and one in Big Horn County.

Four counties have five one-room schools — two of them being Garfield and Custer counties, as you might expect, but also Glacier and Toole counties, up along the Canadian border.

There is a chapter devoted to each school, with a bit of historical information, lots of quotes from students and teachers and some interesting facts about the schools. Most chapters, in addition to multiple photos of the schools and classrooms, feature a two-page photograph of the surrounding countryside, generally wide-open prairie land under a spectacularly beautiful sky.

Among my favorite photos was one showing young scholars doing yoga at the school in Dupuyer, in Pondera County, 34 miles northwest of Choteau, and another of teacher Lora Bauserman at the school in Bear Paw, Blaine County, 30 miles southwest of Chinook. She is shown tending to her three students while cradling her 2-month-old daughter in her arms.

Details“Chasing Time,” which includes a bibliography, has 272 pages and is priced at $32.95. For more information, or to buy a book, go to Riverbend’s website