Harmon’s Histories: Pop quiz! Test your knowledge of Montana schools

It’s back-to-school time. Here’s your first state history quiz:

  1. What were the biggest challenges faced by public schools in Montana’s Territorial days?
  2. The “tallest students in the country” could be found in what Montana town?
  3. Were Montana schoolchildren really “defective” in the 1930s?
  4. For extra credit: What was the must-have brand of shoe for school children in the early 20th century?
  5. And, for extra, extra credit: What scandalous music was rumored to be played by the Missoula high school orchestra in 1914?

Challenges: In 1879, a frustrated W. Egbert Smith, the Territory’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, declared that parents must do something about irregular attendance and tardiness which were “retarding the progress of pupils in the public schools.”

Smith, writing a column carried in the Butte Miner and other newspapers, told parents there was “no good reason … for the prevailing, demoralizing, ruinous habit that so many of the pupils in public schools are allowed to contract and foster.”

The Helena Weekly Herald pleaded with parents in 1885, “Let us not lose a month of school by needless neglect, nor a week, nor even a day, but let every child be on hand the first minute of the first day and stay with the school to its close.”

Then there were the unruly students.

In September 1890, the Missoula Weekly Gazette reported, “when the children were being let out of school they were out with a rush, pushing and jostling each other,” and little Charley Hatt “was knocked down by those behind him” resulting in his second broken leg in recent months.

His parents were said to feel “justly indignant at the manner in which” teachers allow children to “scramble out of their rooms.”

Quite often, though, parents came to the defense of school teachers; sometimes, literally.

In 1898 in the Bitterroot Valley, a couple of “big boys undertook to clean up the teacher” but ended up regretting it, when the Burnt Fork school teacher “used up” the ringleader “so that he had to go to bed.”

The boy’s outraged father and another relative marched to the schoolhouse intending to “thrash the teacher,” only to be confronted by a number of other “patrons of the school who declared that (the teacher) had done just right; that the boy got what he deserved and the teacher should not be molested.”

The newspaper account concluded, “The trustees are thinking of raising the teacher’s salary.”

Tallest: In 1895, the Weekly Montanian commented that “the tallest pupils in the country attend Plains’ school.” The newspaper reported the “directors contemplate removing the loft from the school house so the lengthy students can stand up without fear of endangering their lives by contracting curvature of the spine or concussion of the brain by bumping their Daniel Webster heads against the ceiling.”

Defective Students? Back in the 1930s there was a state law requiring a physical exam of school children be done annually to determine “defects.”

In Libby, the 1931 report found “480 defects” in the 618 pupils examined!

Must-have footwear: Of course, every youngster needed to be properly attired for school and around the turn of the century, that meant a new pair of Buster Brown Blue Ribbon shoes!

“They are made to stand hard knocks and last twice as long as ordinary children’s shoes,” boasts the ad in the Fort Benton River Press. They stand up to “scuffing, scraping (and) kicking … nothing mars them; they thrive on wear!”

Best of all, they were priced from $1.50 to $2.50.

The Thompson Falls Mercantile Company even offered a free “waterproof school bag, with the purchase of Buster Brown shoes.

Scandalous music: In 1914, Missoulian columnist George P. Stone declared, “There will be no more ‘Hitchy-Kooing’ around the high school building.”

Mr. Stachling, the band director, “has registered an indignant denial of the rumor that the unladylike rag had entered the portals of the county institution,” although allowing that perhaps one time – but only one time – the orchestra may have played “a bit of syncopation.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.