(Daily Montanan) Chere Jiusto couldn’t have imagined back when she was a high school student that a part of history and archaeological project aimed at investigating a Dutch colony in the late 1600s would lead her across the country to help preserve Montana’s past.

But for the past two decades, Jiusto has been the leader of Preserve Montana, a nonprofit organization that focuses on preserving unique places, landscapes and the cultural heritage in the state.

And what started as a desk and phone in a spare bedroom has blossomed into a thriving organization that does a lot of what first got Jiusto hooked on preservation – hands-on work.

For example, an old schoolhouse, the Baxendale School, just outside the Archie Bray Center for Ceramic Arts in Helena, will be transformed into a classroom where those who are interested in historic preservation will learn how to save buildings using the same techniques as those who originally built the buildings. One of the organization’s newest projects, it will include a healthy dose of things like window glazing or how to restore walls constructed using lath and plaster.

Jiusto is retiring after more than 20 years leading Preserve Montana. Throughout the years, the group has worked at preserving and promoting dozens of sites that might have otherwise been lost to history and memory.

“Many of the older skills don’t get passed down,” Jiusto said.

Part of the mission of the organization is to pass along those skills so that buildings can be restored in a historically appropriate way. Part of the organization’s mission, though, is to create a love of hands-on history, something that is easily done when bringing a site back to life.

“Those methods were designed at a time when you built it, it lasted. That’s a lot different than the vinyl or even windows that will need restoration a lot sooner,” Jiusto said.

Preserve Montana, which was formerly known as “Montana Preservation Alliance,” doesn’t want to focus on just buildings, but on preserving examples that showcase a Montana way of life.

“It’s not about buildings, but what makes a place, and which sites carry the stories of the past,” Jiusto said. “These places are deeply human and spiritual. You go to these places and feel the past around them, and for some like me, it’s a mission to save them.”

Among her favorite sites have been restoring and working with tribal leaders to preserve battlefield sites. Other places include Montana’s work at preserving one-room school houses. There may have been more than 2,700 rural one-room schools across the state.

“It’s a part of living culture. We had more active rural schools than any other state and the schools were the heartbeat of all these communities,” Jiusto said.

Those places continue to exert a deep pull on Jiusto and have helped guide the organization.

Her work has taken her all over the state to work with leaders from each area to preserve a legacy and way of life that spans time and a massive amount of geography.

She’s proud of the alliances she’s built, helping organizations and communities find ways of preserving what landmarks, buildings and landscapes that are important to them.

“I love figuring out how to help people find a path to save and preserve places that hold a lot of memories,” Jiusto said. “It’s not just work you do by yourself.”

Yet for Jiusto, it’s not just about preserving a past that no longer exists, it’s also about bringing some of the past forward to be used for new memories.

For example, she’s proud of the work that Preserve Montana has done in Lewistown to help save the Broadway Apartments. She helped the community there find the grants to stabilize the building. After four decades of sitting vacant, the new space is part of a new solution as Montana struggles with a housing crisis.

Just the redevelopment of Lewistown has spurred on six nearby properties for redevelopment.

Board member Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs said Jiusto inspired the staff, board and public to preserve what is best in the “Last Best Place.” Ambrose Tubbs also she learned from the executive director about preservation projects from schoolhouse restoration to mainstream buildings.

“She knows exactly what novelist Wallace Stegner observed in ‘Angle of Repose.’ ‘Towns are like people. Old ones often have character, the new ones are interchangeable,’” Ambrose Tubbs said. “Thanks to Chere’s leadership, we can all appreciate how truly fortunate we are to live in the Treasure state, where special places still matter.”

Even the Archie Bray Center, where the school now stands, is part of how Preserve Montana has helped transform a brickyard into a world-class art magnet.

A 2010 industrial heritage project helped to keep the huge brick kilns from falling apart. As a potter who counts herself as one of Rudy Autio’s students, Jiusto is also an advocate for places that may not fit the typical definition of historical preservation, like the Bray center.

“It resonated with me, the beauty of how these things, like the kilns, were built and their craftsmanship over time and what remains,” Jiusto said.

And she’s used that same vision around the state, whether that’s helping to preserve the remarkably diverse past of Butte’s ethnic neighborhoods, which includes preserving the way the Finns made and used knives, or the way Hispanic communities used the mocaljete. She still loves visiting the sites in southeastern Montana sacred to the Cheyenne people. And she wonders: What would Whitehall be without the Star Theater?

“One thing that defines Montana is a sense of space and wild country,” Jiusto said. “It’s wild, but it’s inhabited. I worry that we’re filling up so fast and that a lot of people who are drawn to be here, who don’t see it for what it is, but what they want it to be and they don’t appreciate how rich and special it is.”

More From Missoula Current