Creston School Hopes to Find Former Students in Mystery Photos

Film slides found in Alaska attic reveal school scenes from 1950s

By Myers Reece
Creston School received a mailer full of color slides dating back to the 1950s. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Around Christmas, a mailer arrived at Creston School with an Alaska P.O. Box number but no name. Inside the package school officials found old 35-millimeter film slides with a hand-written note explaining the photos were found in an attic. Many of them were labeled “Creston School.”

A few were dated from various years in the 1950s, but beyond that there was no other information. Principal Tami Ward developed the slides into prints, revealing Creston School scenes from more than a half-century ago: students in the classroom, in a Christmas program at the nearby grange hall, playing outside, performing in plays.

To make sense of the mystery photos, Ward enlisted a brigade of small, enthusiastic detectives: her school’s students, from third to sixth grade. As part of this “inquiry” project in January and February, Ward had students identify and discuss what they saw in the photos, and jot down their thoughts on paper, an exercise in critical thinking and collaborative problem solving.

The school, which has operated in the same location since 1903, still looks the same in certain ways as in the 1950s, but not every classroom or area was immediately obvious. The scenes were at once familiar and foreign, and questions emerged, most notably: Who were these students in the pictures, and where are they now?

Fifth-graders at Creston School look at prints of photos the school recently received dating back to the 1950s. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

That’s the main question the students and school officials are still trying to answer, and they are reaching out to the public in the hopes of finding either the actual students, who would be in their 70s now, or relatives and friends who will recognize them. The idea is to open a dialogue between those former students and current students, perhaps through letters or Skype, or, even better, face to face in the classroom.

“The kids really loved it,” Ward said. “They loved that connection that they were doing some of the same things we still do at Creston School, building forts, those types of things. Then they wondered if they were still around and if they could come in and talk to them.”

On a recent morning, fifth-grade students described more questions that had arisen through the inquiry project. Did teachers hit kids with rulers? Did they have male teachers? What did they think about Creston School? What was it like back then? And, as 10-year-old Miles Arrowsmith put it, “Who are you?”

Arrowsmith was also intrigued with differences in classroom staples: “Our boards are crazy high-tech, but they just had chalkboards.”

Students were able to discern dates of some photos by noting calendars opened to October 1955 in the background. And 11-year-old Laila Sargent recognized windows and interior features in one photo as those in the nearby grange hall, where she attends 4-H.

“They must have used the grange for their Christmas programs,” Sargent said. “Now we do our Christmas programs in the gym.”

Creston School Principal Tami Ward holds one of the photos. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Creston School is one of the oldest continually running schools in Flathead County, and as a cornerstone of its rural community, it holds a special place in the hearts of many students, many of whom keep in touch.

“We’ve been here for over 100 years, and family members and alumni will stop by,” Ward said. “People like to come back and are proud of the education they got here.”

But the school doesn’t usually have to go find them. Ward is hoping a newspaper article will reach the alumni in the photos or their relatives, as the current students would be thrilled to speak to them. In any case, she said the inquiry project was a neat opportunity for the kids to explore their school’s history.

“It may remain a mystery,” she said. “But if you find one, they might have access to others. We’ll see.”

To see the photos and for more information, call Creston School at (406) 755-2859.