One-Room School with a View

Recently added to the National Historic Register, the newly restored Ford Schoolhouse along the North Fork Flathead River educated homestead children more than a century ago

By Micah Drew
Restoration work on the Ford School House up the North Fork in summer of 2022. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

Stitched across Montana’s vast rural landscape, far away from the connectivity of Main Streets and residential infrastructure, a network of modest, easily overlooked structures hearken back to a bygone era. Most of the diminutive buildings are abandoned, the book-toting pupils who once filed through their doors having grown up long ago. 

And yet, Montana’s legacy of one-room schoolhouses endures, due in part to local efforts to preserve them, as well as the state’s continued reliance on them.

Indeed, Montana is known for operating more modern one- and two-room schoolhouses of any state in the nation, according to the National Trust for Historic Places (NTHP). The number of one-room schoolhouses used throughout the state fluctuates based on rural demographics, but roughly 60 are routinely educating students. 

For the non-operational schoolhouses, however, the stories are at risk of becoming lost to history. 

In 2013, rural schoolhouses in Montana were designated as one of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places,” according to the NTHP. Various projects in recent years have worked to locate, survey and preserve the remaining one-room schoolhouses in the state, focusing on those that have since forgone their original purpose. 

“The proud rural heritage of Montana is reflected in its unparalleled collection of historic country schools,” wrote NTHP president Stephanie Meeks. “These modest buildings tell the story of the generations of farmers and ranchers who gathered, and sent their children to be educated, in these small but crucial community centers.”

About nine miles north of Polebridge, the tiny community outpost situated up the North Fork Flathead River corridor that forms the western edge of Glacier National Park, the heritage of one such schoolhouse is now permanently recognized.

In November, the Ford Schoolhouse, a one-room log structure built in 1918 to educate the children of homesteaders and serve as a community gathering place for early residents of the North Fork, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) to commemorate its local significance. 

Ford School House students winter circa 1940. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

Lois Walker, the unofficial North Fork historian who has spent years compiling an archival record of the area, says one of the main questions she gets about the local history is how education (and postal services) worked.  

“There were stories about how kids were schooled and people knew bits of history, but no one had researched the documents and catalogued them,” Walker said. “But everyone who lives in the area knows about the Ford schoolhouse.

Although the century-old structure was only briefly used as a rural schoolhouse, it played an essential role during that period. In 1918, homesteaders up the North Fork built the 21-by-17-foot log cabin in a meadow along the bank of the Flathead River. Until the schoolhouse was built, local children attended school in Columbia Falls, often needing to board with relatives or friends in the town during the school year. The first organized school in the North Fork area reportedly operated out of a canvas tent in 1913, before homesteaders began building log schools. The Ford Schoolhouse is the only one of these original schools still standing.

“It’s a little gem of a site up there,” said Meghan Mulholland, an archeologist with the Flathead National Forest.  “This little guy is awfully small, but has real historical value.”

The Ford Schoolhouse operated as an education center from its construction in 1918 until 1920, then again from 1930 to 1942, serving anywhere from six to 12 students each year. During the lull in educational instruction, the building was used by locals for community events including fundraisers, holiday programs and “Hard Times” dances, a “necessary response to a difficult homesteading life punctuated by isolation, severe winters and few social opportunities,” according to the Forest Service’s history of the schoolhouse.  

The application to the National Register of Historic Places states the structure showcases a “modesty of design and use of indigenous materials” that “captures the spirit of this isolated, yet resourceful homesteading community.”

Ford School House up the North Fork in spring 2022. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

Newspaper records from the time offer some insight into the early schooling of homestead children, including carpentry training for boys that led to the building of the school’s bookcases, and a school garden that produced the “nicest cabbage and cauliflower plants in the district,” according to The Columbian, a now-defunct newspaper that served Columbia Falls. 

Standard studies of reading, writing and arithmetic were taught and considered important enough that the acquisition of a new pencil sharpener made headlines, the records state. 

Records also indicate that the last students studied at the Ford Schoolhouse in 1942. Following the school’s closure, the building was privately owned until 1981, at which point the property was transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. 

It has since sat empty. 

In 2018, Walker and her fellow North Fork residents inquired with Mulholland about the structure’s preservation.

“It was clear that the building was in some decline,” she said. “It sits at a prominent locale just north of Ford Station and for decades the owners were very active in the community. We were getting a little concerned about its future.”

“They really had a passion about preserving the structure,” Mulholland said. “We put it on our to-do list right then.” 

The Flathead National Forest currently has two full-time preservation specialists, a rarity for National Forests in general, but a necessity in this history-rich region. The specialists are responsible for assessing historical sites and performing renovations, restoring buildings to their original forms. At the Ford Schoolhouse, private owners tacked on additions to the main structure through the years, which the Forest Service removed to restore the building to its original floor plan.

Work on the schoolhouse began in earnest in 2019 but was paused during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the Flathead National Forest’s heritage team, as well as a dedicated group of local volunteers, finished removing the existing roof, replacing it with an original-style cedar shake roof. During the renovations, old alphabet tracings from school kids were found on the backs of some original roof boards.

Alphabet tracings from school kids found on the backs of some original roof boards. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

There is still more work to be done to rehabilitate the floor and foundation, but achieving historic status sets the stage for the site to be maintained as a local landmark.

“At this point we’re unsure of how to enhance the site for the public,” Mulholland said. “The most important thing is that once you restore a structure like this, you have to start interpreting it right away. You need to educate the public on why it’s there, which connects them to the history and can help deter vandalism.”

Next year, an informational sign will be installed near the schoolhouse, and possible future uses include a small museum or a Forest Service-managed rental property, similar to the agency’s roster of historic fire towers for rent. Walker says she would love to see it continue its tradition as an educational facility. 

“I think there’s a lot of potential there, and the community will continue to part of the discussions going forward,” she said. “We kind of view it as our resource too — it’s part of our community, we see it every day and we want to continue to do so.”