Early history of schools
in the Seeley Swan - Part I

April 26, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

 This is a reproduction from the November 6, 1957 Open House and Dedication of a new Seeley Lake Elementary School that replaced this one. The building built in 1957, with some additions, looked pretty much the same until a couple years ago when the school was again remodeled and expanded.

Butch Townsend during a recent visit to the original Placid Lake school building, two miles west of Placid Lake on the road to Jocko Lake. Butch visited the school with Donna Love who was researching history of schools in the area. Butch went to this Placid Lake school from third grade to eighth grade.

Butch Townsend attended school here in the early 1920's.

A History of the Seeley Lake Elementary School ­ Part 1

By Donna Love


School Days, School Days*


The first schools in the area were at Placid Lake and Condon. Historical information assembled in 1961 by the Seeley Lake Parent Teacher Association (PTA)** places their start in 1905, 97 years ago.

These Historical Archives list the Board of Trustees for the Swan Valley School in Condon as Charles Hammons, Otis Avery, and Issac Sears.

School in Condon that first winter was sixty days long. Seven children were enrolled. The salary for one teacher was $75 a month. By 1909 the salary had risen to $90 a month.

It's amazing that teachers even came to the area. A one way trip to Missoula by horse and buggy took five days.

In 1916 a new school district to the south separated from the Swan Valley District when an election on May 29, "was held to locate a new school." The voters bonded the new district for $2500 to build and equip the school. Seeley Lake School District #34 was born.

The new district's Board of Trustees were Myrtle Swanson and "Mrs. Burleson." The first teacher was Elizabeth Chandler. Five months of school were held.

Between 1919 and 1922 the teachers were Ruby Harding and "Mrs. M. Swanson." Together they taught 12 children.

Long time residents, Allen and Mildred Chaffin recall that the first school was on the north end of Boy Scout Road by the Clearwater River "near the old barn that is falling down." The school building is no longer there. (The post office, across the river from the school, is still standing.)

The PTA Archives called the Seeley Lake School the "O.C. Miller School (Crites School)" because it was on Miller's land. It states:

"We must remember there weren't any lights (electric) (sic) kerosene lamps were used and coal and wood stoves were the heating units. Children walked or rode horses to school, (sic) some boarded with someone that lived nearer the school. Al Vessey had some board with him. Alvin Rovero stayed there one year."


Dear Old Golden Rule Days


Elta "Butch" Townsend, long time resident of Seeley Lake, who's family moved to Placid Lake in 1920, attended first and second grade in Seeley Lake in 1921 and 1922. (They lived near the Placid Lake School, but it did not have a teacher at the time.)

Mrs. Townsend recalls that during her first grade year she and her mother and siblings moved into Seeley so the children could attend school. They stayed in a tarpaper shack located near where the Emily A Bed and Breakfast now stands.

Butch Townsend attended school here in the early 1920's.

Mrs. Townsend shivered, "That was the coldest winter of my life." They "prayed" to stay warm and "kept the wood stove roaring."

The next year Mrs. Townsend, and a sister and brother boarded in town to attend school while her father, Irvine Sperry, lobbied hard with the state for a teacher to return to Placid Lake.

The state said they needed three children to warrant a teacher. With three of the eleven Sperry children now in school they were able to have a teacher in 1923.

At Placid Lake the Sperry children walked to school when the weather was nice. If it was cold they rode their horse. When they got to the school they turned the horse loose so it could return home.

In the fall they watched Indians on horseback pass by the school on their way from the Jocko to their hunting grounds in what is now the Bob Marshal Wilderness.

Through the winter it was the family's job to keep the school and teacherage (where the teacher lived) heated. The children chopped wood, delivered it in a horse drawn sleigh and stored it in the woodshed.

The last time the Placid Lake School is mentioned in the PTA Archives, it states, "The teacher from the years 1957 through 1959 at the Placid Lake School was Peggy Baker. The teacher from the years of 1959 through 61 was Alma Seng."

Mrs. Townsend, herself only went to school until age 13, but she said she's "smart enough to live to be eighty-six."


Readin', 'Riten', and 'Rithmetic


In Seeley Lake in the 1920's teachers only taught for one or two years. School board trustees changed often, too, but familiar names dot the rosters including Vessey, Maloney, Ostermeyer and Sperry.

Information on where the school was located in the 1920's is sketchy because the place where it was held moved several times. As long time resident, Ralph Cahoon put it, "Seems they held school wherever they could."

The Archives in 1922-25 state that the "Difference of the location of the school brought on blowing up of a well and was there a fire started!" It does not state where this occurred.

In 1925-26 it was recorded that the "Old PTA building was obtained from Forest Service for Community Hall and donated to school for school house," but it does not say where this schoolhouse was located either. It does record that there ten children attended school that year.***

In the late 20's automobiles began to impact the community. The first service station in Seeley Lake opened in 1928. It was recorded that the late Herbert Townsend (Mrs. Townsend's husband) recalled that the first "dozer" was used on the roads in 1932 when there were 15 children in school.


Taught to the Tune
of a Hick-ry Stick


In 1935, 21 children were enrolled in Seeley Lake. Leon "Bud" Anderson, a student then, recalls that the school was located at "Headquarters," an abandoned ACM (Anaconda Copper Mining Company) camp on S.O.S. Road.

ACM had just moved out and the school moved into one of their buildings. (Cindy Torok recently moved that building into town for her art studio/store.)

In 1936 the school moved again this time to four miles north of town on the west side of Highway 83.

The building, according to Mildred Chaffin in Cabin Fever, was "A frame building built by the CCC's and used as a kitchen and dinning room during smokejumper training here."

Another ACM building was added to the site. It was painted red and served as the "teacherage" and as a supplementary classroom.

This site became the school grounds until 1957. Today, the school and teacherage are still at this site north of town where it is being used as a residence.

With the school finally settled, a community member was hired to "collect children" and at the same time "deliver water" to the school for $25 a month. The teacher was to "note" the days that the children and water were not delivered.

In 1937 the school year increased from eight to nine months. Children riding their horses to school caused a great deal of concern. It was decided that the school would keep the barn repaired, the PTA would paint it, but the children riding the horses would clean it.

A 1939 school operating budget included $8 a month to rent the teacherage, $24 for the purchase of a Simmons twin bed and box springs for the treacherage, $49 for a Rand McNally Globe and dictionary, $1 for a softball, $1.60 for a school bell and 35 cents for a thermometer.


You Were My Queen in Calico


In 1940, the number of children in Seeley Lake stood at 41, but WWII greatly impacted the enrollment. In 1941 only 28 children attended. By 1945 enrollment dropped to 10.

After the war things began to look up. In 1945 12 children attended school and the first PTA formed.

The PTA accomplishments during its first year included purchasing curtains for the teacherage, food for Play Day and three phonograph records.

The next year the PTA purchased a phonograph player and bought four dozen cups and spoons for the school.

Around this same time the school board began to discuss purchasing a bus because "about 10 children" came "5 to 7 miles" to attend. The one they bought cost $1510.

Lyle Slade drove the bus. It was known that "You could set your watch by him."

The war brought a demand for timber. Several small sawmills dotted the valley in the late forty's. Gray's Mill, north of Seeley Lake and the largest mill in the valley, opened in 1946.

In 1948 the student enrollment grew to 31. The PTA purchased a loud speaker for the phonograph so all the students could hear.

In 1949 a slide was purchased for the playground along with Pinochle decks to be used "for fund raising." A telephone was installed in the teacherage for emergencies.

J&M Lumber, later called Pyramid Mountain Lumber Company opened in June of 1949 when the student enrollment stood at 33.

School board minutes from that same year noted that "parents and teachers discussed discipline in the school and it was agreed that there should be more of it practiced during school hours."


I Was Your Bashful,

Barefoot Beau


In the 1950-51 school year the school enrollment exploded to 52.

In an account written about Seeley Lake in 1957 by Adeline Bartron, County Superintendent of Schools, the growth in the valley's population was explained. Supt. Bartron wrote that it stemmed from a "spruce bark beetle infestation in the forest of the northwest."

Logging the infested trees was the only practical solution so the federal government began "in 1948 to build access roads into far back timbered areas."

They were getting the infestation under control when a "heavy blow-down" in 1952 started the concern all over again because "the spruce bark beetle quickly bores into a fallen tree and renders it useless within two years."

Combined efforts of government and industry "succeeded in getting the infested trees cut, processed and marketed." Many new jobs were created and families soon followed.


And You Wrote on My Slate

"I Love You, Joe"


To make room for the expanding enrollment the PTA fixed up a horse "barn" and added it to the existing building.

Great discussion commenced about the need for a new school, but some of the school board and town folks called the children "transients." They thought Seeley Lake would soon be back to its own one room school.

In 1951 the Supervisor of the Lolo National Forest came to the temporary rescue by donating another CCC building at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station to the District.

It was added to the school along with the old frame building and the horse barn.

The new "old building" lacked electricity and needed "lights." Over the next two years the school board and PTA worked together to bring light to the school. Gas lamps were the answer.

That same year the School lost its Superior Rating "due to the lack of water and plumbing" and "overcrowded classrooms."

The PTA listed its accomplishment for the 1951-52 school year as "Trying to get water into school [building]."


When We Were

A Couple of Kids


Mike Williams, a Seeley Lake resident attended school during those crowded years starting with first grade in 1952 when 57 children were enrolled.

His first grade class was held in the "teacherage" with three other students. He said, "The main school was a renovated barn."

In his fourth grade year the third and fourth grade classes attended school in what is now part of the Mountain Lakes Presbyterian Church.

Known as the "Parish House" it too was a CCC structure that was donated by the Forest Service. It had been the smokejumper's chute packing shed.

Williams recalls that his class was so unruly they went through "five or six" teachers that year. When a male teacher was hired things settled down.

With school being held in a number of places in 1953 the school board began to seriously discuss the need for a new school. Mrs. Ann Gray gave a report to the board that the amount of money the district could bond for the school was "$52,000 to $61,000.

In 1954 school enrollment jumped to 94. That same year a high school bus began making its daily trip to Missoula. The bus ride was "the longest [school] bus ride in the state." It was 138 miles roundtrip.

School board minutes from 1954 read, "Discussion about location and building a new school. 'How to get started' seemed to be the major item."


To Be Continued Next Week


*The song, School Days, School Days" was written in 1907 by Will D. Cobbs and Gus Edwards.

**Information complied by the 1961 PTA consisting of Mrs. M. Anders, George Hart, Irma Swallow and Mrs. L. Heron. A special thanks goes to Kaye Mahoney, the Seeley Lake Elementary Multi-age 4-6 Classroom Teacher for her foresight and wisdom in keeping this information safe.

***If anyone has any information concerning the early days of the school in Seeley Lake, please contact Donna Love at 677-3767.

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