Swan River School at 130

Ahead of a celebration on Oct. 26, past and present educators at the small, rural school reflected on its close-knit community, as well as the quirks that make it feel like home

By Denali Sagner
Halls of Swan River School in Bigfork on Oct. 18, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Before Bigfork’s Swan River School had telephones in its classrooms, third grade teacher Kathy Greytak would shout through the air vents over to fourth grade teacher Betty Darr when she needed to pass a message along to her coworker and friend.

“We didn’t have an intercom, so I thought, I’ll just holler through the vent that went into her room,” she remembered with a laugh, recounting one of the many days spent in her third grade classroom.

“She’s teaching, and I could hear her on the board. It was late in the day. It was time to go home. So I just holler, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing over there?’ And the kids go, ‘Misses Darr! Misses Darr! There’s somebody talking!”

“It was funny,” Greytak said. “Those are the things I remember.”  

Steeped in history and nestled at the foot of the Swan Mountains, Swan River School has stood as a landmark in the rural area around Bigfork for as long as anyone can remember. The small school is home to around 200 students between kindergarten and eighth grade, 12 teachers, three administrators and a handful of support staff.

It’s a place where, as fifth grade teacher Shelley Emslie says, “Tradition meets academic excellence.”

Now, Swan River is marking its 130th anniversary and preparing for an Oct. 26 celebration that will honor its long history, as well as its future.

Swan River School was formally organized on May 16, 1893, and its first school board trustee was appointed in July of the same year. The original Swan River School sat in a one-room log cabin with a brick chimney and cedar shake roof. The school’s first teacher, Edna Mearia, was hired by the original board of directors at $45 per month.

By 1908, 88 students were enrolled at Swan River, which underwent a major expansion that same year to accommodate its growth.

As Swan River reached the Roaring Twenties, major changes lay ahead for its ever-increasing student body. The school board in 1921 approved the construction of a new two-room schoolhouse, which would remain in use until 2003, even after construction crews picked up the entire building and moved it to Swan River’s current location off of Highway 83 and Echo Lake Road in the late 1990’s. In 1997, the school board asked voters to approve a bond to expand the school’s main building, adding four classrooms, a kitchen and a lunchroom at the cost of $1.16 million. The bond passed 266 to 233, and the new building opened in the spring of 1999. In 2010, the school began offering full-day kindergarten classes for the first time, after offering only a half-day option for decades.

Physical education teacher Bud Gaiser leads a gym class at Swan River School in Bigfork on Oct. 18, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Newspaper archives recount students riding horses to school, raising funds for polio research and attending the Odyssey of the Mind world finals competition.

“We had such strong community support over the years. People always said Swan River was like a private public school,” Darr said. “It was a small community with some farms and ranches. Everybody knew everybody.”

Though the days of log cabins and cedar shake roofs are long gone, teachers at Swan River say that history and tradition remain paramount in the school, values that are bolstered by its location in the rural outskirts of the valley.

Past and present educators at Swan River said that it’s common to have students whose parents, and even grandparents, attended Swan River. Many Swan River graduates who stay in the Flathead Valley return to the school to enroll their own children, continuing the family legacy that defines the small school.

“You got to see kids and families. You’d have two or three kids from the same family over the years, and so you felt like you really got to know them well,” Darr said. “It was neat to see them grow up.”

Bailey Johnson, the current third grade teacher at Swan River, was a student of Darr and Greytak’s when they were teachers, a detail that fills them both with pride.

Third grade teacher Bailey Johnson in her classroom at Swan River School in Bigfork on Oct. 18, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For Emily Feller, the current fourth grade teacher, the family environment cultivated at Swan River distinguishes it from other schools.

“It’s such a culture,” Feller said. “It literally is a giant family in each of these classes. They follow each other, which I’m sure is a part of that. They fight like siblings, versus classmates. It’s just completely different. The kids here are not like the other kids at other schools.”

To help her own students understand Swan River’s legacy, Emslie and her fifth graders in 2018 embarked on a mission to uncover the school’s history, taking on a multi-week history project that culminated in a documentary created by the students. In the video, Emslie’s students interview former Swan River attendees and current educators about changes at Swan River, from school lunches to the role of the principal.

Margaret Albrecht, a former student who attended Swan River from 1946 to 1953, described watching students ride their horses to and from school as her mother dropped her off in their Ford Model T.

“It was a really nice, homey place, and we loved it,” Albrecht told Emslie’s students in the documentary.

Now, Emslie said, she shows the video to her students every year.

“I think for these kids, they know, they sense the tradition. They sense what it’s like to be a Swanee, and they carry it on. That’s the coolest part,” Emslie said.  

Swan River School students at their desks in Bigfork on Oct. 18, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Beyond the nurturing environment that is central to the student experience at Swan River, the school’s educators say that they, too, learned invaluable lessons from working in the small, tight-knit setting.

“I worked very closely with the teachers on either side of my grade level. We were just a close team, all of us for quite a long time,” Darr said.

Darr was awarded the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award in 1998, becoming the first rural schoolteacher from Montana to ever win the honor. Her success, she said, can be attributed to all she learned at Swan River.

“It was due to the amazing mentorship I had and the people that I was able to connect with in education,” Darr said. “You know, everything we ever learned, we learned from a teacher.”

Emslie said that she is inspired by the teachers around her and by the many that came before her — all the way back to the log cabin in 1893.

“To stand on the shoulders of the greats before you, you’re able to keep that tradition alive. It is such a sense of purpose, and it’s my true north,” she said.

The teachers also recount quirks and difficulties at Swan River, saying that challenges inevitably arise in a small school like theirs. Everyone is expected to wear a number of hats, from lunch duty to crossing guard shifts to disciplining other teachers’ children who are acting out in the hallway.

Second grade teacher Shayenn Thompson in her classroom at Swan River School in Bigfork on Oct. 18, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Greytak remembered one of her third grade students being pulled out of class because his hands were small enough to help his parents birth pigs.

Darr said that in the old school building, there was only one phone, placed right in the middle of the noisy lunchroom. If she needed to make a private call to a parent, she would sit on the floor of the school’s only bathroom, which sat adjacent to the lunchroom. Sometimes, she would sit in the dark because the fan that turned on with the overhead light was too loud.

“That’s all you could do,” she said, laughing.  “When you work in a rural school, you have all kinds of things that you never imagined you would worry about.”

Though grounded in its history, Swan River is not immune to the demographic changes that have put pressure on many of the Flathead Valley’s public schools.

Between 2013 and 2022, the school grew from 143 students to 191, an enrollment increase of 34%. Last fall, Swan River’s kindergarten, second, fifth and eighth grade classes were pushing 30 students per classroom.

The growth at Swan River tracks with the population boom seen in the Flathead Valley over the past decade, and more specifically, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2013, Flathead County was home to 92,988 residents. By 2022, that number had grown to 111,814.

“Since COVID, the cat’s out of the bag. I don’t know how you want to say it. Everybody’s here,” Emslie said.

The COVID-era housing boom has exerted pressure on the county’s 19 school public school districts, many of which have struggled to maintain ever-growing enrollment lists and overflowing classrooms. Swan River is one of ten small, rural elementary schools that have seen more than a 25% increase in student enrollment over the past decade. Many educators point to the rising housing costs within the county’s three cities — Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls — that have pushed families out into rural communities, and into rural schools.

“It’s gotten a little harder now because there’s more kids. Their enrollment has gone up, and there’s more kids coming from out of the area,” Darr said.

In the future, Emslie expects the school will have to propose another expansion.

To celebrate the 130-year history forged by Swan River teachers, students and families, the school on Oct. 26 will be hosting an anniversary open house for the entire community. The event will take place at Swan River School from 5 – 7 p.m., and attendees will be able to gather together to share memories and tour the school building. 

“I have good memories from there. I really do,” Darr said, reflecting on her nearly 25-year tenure at Swan River. “It’s got a special place in my heart and always will, mostly because of the people I got to work with, and the parents and kids that I got to meet and be part of their lives. It’s just pretty amazing when you’re in a small community and you keep running into people. I’m thankful for that. I really am.”

A decorated wall celebrating Swan River School’s 130th anniversary in Bigfork on Oct. 18, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Correction: A former version of this story referred to fourth grade teacher Emily Feller as Emily Geller.

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