Harmon’s Histories: As MCPS considers future, a look at Missoula County High School’s 1905 debut

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.

The house warming was set for January 21, 1905. 

Tables were arranged in the larger rooms to accommodate the three-course banquet, which would commence at 5 p.m., followed by a reception and musical program. The cost: 35 cents.

Missoulians, that Saturday night in 1905, were celebrating the city’s brand new high school on Sixth Street. 

Today, Missoula County Public Schools leadership is considering what to do with the aging building (currently used as the administrative building). Should it be leased? Sold?

For a lot of us, the building holds uncounted memories (some of mine are not so fond), like lugging heavy TV recording equipment up those stairs to cover District 1 school board meetings back in the early 1980s.

As I walked down the building’s hallways this week to Hatton Littman’s office (she’s the director of communications for Missoula County Public Schools), I found the floors still creak just as they did back in the ’80s.

In going over school files, we found there are a number of factual inconsistencies and misconceptions about the building. 

One document lists 1897 as the construction date. Another claims 1910. Yet another states Albert John (A. J.) Gibson was the architect. Not one of those statements is correct.

The plans were actually drawn up by Missoula architect J. H. Kennedy. (A. J. Gibson was one of three other architects who submitted plans, but was not selected.)

Kennedy’s plans called for a two-story brick structure built on a full stone basement, with materials sourced locally. There were to be 10 rooms for “recitation and assembly.”

Well-known contractor W. D. Keeney was awarded the project in late July 1904 (not 1897) with a bid of $35,829.58. It was a tight construction schedule, with a January 1, 1905 completion date or daily penalties would kick in.

Think about that for a moment. From the first shovel in the ground to occupancy, this stone and brick structure (that has now stood for 115 years) was to be built in five months! 

Keeney’s previous Missoula work had included the Carnegie Library and Prescott School. 

Work began Monday morning, August 2, 1904, with “a large force of men.” 

Of course, knowing the new high school wouldn’t be ready for the start of the 1904-1905 school year, the school board arranged to temporarily rent space in the newly completed Lutheran school building nearby until their own building was finished.

As it turned out, construction took slightly more than five months months, and there were delays in furniture deliveries, so occupancy was set for February 23, 1905.

The building was described not only as one of the finest school buildings in the state, but also as “handsome.” Although it was designed as a high school, it would have to house some lower grades too, because of an explosion in school-aged children in Missoula.

That situation was supposed to be short term. It wasn’t. By 1908, overcrowding was so bad that the school day had to be split – with eighth-graders using the building in the mornings; high-school students in the afternoons. Another high school (today’s Hellgate) was under construction.

In addition to the “eight spacious and well-ventilated classrooms” the Sixth Street school building had “two large laboratories and a commodious library, a superintendent’s room and two dressing rooms for the teachers,” according to a description in the Missoulian newspaper.

Ventilation, at that particular moment in history, was a big deal. The smallpox epidemic of 1898-1905 was slowly receding, but still dominated the public consciousness.

According to Agnes L. Brown’s book, Public High School Education in Missoula: 1884-1955, “Crowding and unsatisfactory sanitary conditions that caused the city health officer to close part of the High School building in 1902, brought a demand … for a new school building.”

The new school’s ventilation system was hailed by the Missoulian newspaper as “so complete that thirty cubic feet of air per minute per pupil is circulated, making the atmosphere on the inside exactly the same as on the outside, at the same time having the temperature normal for indoors.

“There is a transom for every window, so the air in the respective rooms may be flushed thoroughly whenever desired.”

In late January 1905, there was only one active case of the dreaded disease in Missoula, although there were rumors of others. The man “had been removed to the pest house” and his family confined to “the detention hospital.” Their house was being fumigated.

As a precautionary measure, classes at most schools in town were suspended as authorities made a careful examination of student vaccination records.

But on Saturday night, January 21, 1905, everyone put those matters aside and celebrated the new high school building. 

One observer jokingly likened the building’s house warming to a “baptism by mud” as guests, who had slogged through slush and puddles to get there that night, couldn’t avoid tracking some mud inside.

Diners began the progressive banquet in one room, moved to the next and then enjoyed dessert in the third room. By 8 p. m., an estimated 500 Missoulians had been served and the reception and music began.

The students had “made elaborate preparations for the affair,” designing a musical program with “numbers by the best talent in the school,” capped off with the singing of the new class song:

Hail to the colors that float the light;

Hurrah for the Purple and Gold!

And golden their treasure’s old;

Golden the sunlight that fills the heart with cheer,

And golden the smiles on lips that we hold dear; Hail!

Hail to the colors that float in the light;

Hurrah for the Purple and Gold.

Now, with echoes of townsfolk and pupils singing, dancing and celebrating over 100 years ago, it’s up to 2020’s school board to decide the future of 1905’s high school/elementary school/administration building at 215 South Sixth West.

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.