“The more you know about something, the better care you can give it.”

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.

Part two

Seeley Lake Elementary had its start in 1916 when it separated from the Condon District. School enrollment grew slowly until 1950 when an infestation of spruce bark beetle in the forests of the northwest caused growth in the timber industry. This created new jobs and with it came more people. The Elementary School was literally busting at the seams.

The Old School

In 1954 the Seeley Lake School Board recognized the need for a new school. The school had grown in eight years from 12 students in 1946 to 110 in 1954.

The buildings, a 30-year old AMC building, an old CCC cookhouse and a horse-barn, were inadequate and teacher turnover was high.

The playground area was so small the teacher had to make sure that the children got out of the swings before the school bus arrived.

The PTA offered to sponsor the new school. A school site election was held. The community voted it down.

Some didn’t want a new school because the new well was finally in at the old school and it “would be wasted.” Others thought the new children were “transients.”

The PTA’s accomplishments for 1955-1956 include, “Still working towards our new Grade School.”

After circulating fliers concerning the need for a new school the Board went back to the citizens with a bond issue.

Miraculously, it passed. The children of Seeley Lake would finally have a new school.

What to do with the new well at the old school? Someone offered this solution, “Cut it up and sell it for post holes!”

The New School

Armed with $63,484 the school board learned new words, including “convenient, accessible, suitable and well drained.”

They had to have a site of not less than one-half acre in size because they were a first class school, the lowest class.

The Board could purchase land or rent up to ten acres of state land for one dollar a year for 99 years.

They chose to buy. They located 4 sites, but bought ten acres for $2500 owned by “Mr. Maloney” because it was (1) readily accessible with less cost to prepare a road, (2) isolated from noise and traffic, (3) centrally located, (4) convenient to utilities, fire prevention and water, (5) met the requirements of the law, and (6) encouraged wider use of the building by the community.

Other sites considered were too close to the mill (noise and pollution), too close to the main highway (dangerous), or too far away.

The school board hired an architect from Kalispell to design the school. The lowest bid on the building came in $3000 over what they could afford.

The Board went back to the voters with a mill levy for 10 mills. It passed.

The “Impacted School”

Missoula County Auditor, LaVerne Taylor, volunteered to help secure Federal Aid for the new school by asking the federal government to qualify it as an “impacted school.”

Her request was denied because that aid applied only to growth from a government activity such as a dam or military installation.

Auditor Taylor, at her own expense, flew to Washington, D.C. to appear before a joint house and senate committee meeting on April 14, 1956.

When she asked if anyone wanted to see pictures the Committee Chairman said, “No, Mrs. TaylorI can practically smell that hoss barn now.”

As of a result of her testimony several schools in Montana, Idaho and Washington were able to receive federal aid as “impacted schools” due to the Spruce bark beetle infestation.

Seeley Lake received $13,000, which they used to purchase desks and to equip the school kitchen.

Moving Day

Construction began and the school was to be done by Thanksgiving of 1956, but “winter weather” and “distances from freight terminals” delayed the process.

Winter passed in the cramped quarters with four teachers including Dave Olson, Bob Graham, Muriel Haines and Ione McCormick.

When moving day arrived on May 14, 1957, the excited children helped pack, but bad news arrived.

The water at the new school was only a “reddish” trickle. Another well would have to be dug.

Then, due to the unsanitary conditions in the old school, “the plain old fashioned itch” spread through the school children, closing school for a week.

While school was closed the Missoula County Road Department devised a temporary solution to the water problem. A county water sprinkling tank truck supplied water to the school making in possible to flush the toilets.

At the insistence of Supt. Bartron the move was completed on May 27, three days before school dismissed for the summer.

Supt. Bartron, deviating from her otherwise stoic account, wrote, “The town turned out to see the expression on the children’s faces. No one was disappointed. Many a little hand was just rubbed along a wall, touched the colors on the tile floor or moved across the Formica tops of the work countertheir school was real.”*

The dedication for the school was held the next year in November. They sold the old school to a local resident for $2500. He planned to make it into a motel.

A New High School

School began in earnest in the new building in the fall of 1957. It had four classrooms with two grades per class, an office and a kitchen. Lunch was served in the “large hall” using “drop-down” tables hung on the walls.

The first principal was Carl Mecham. The first teachers included Murial Haines who had been at the school since 1950, Ione McCormick, who arrived in 1955, and new teachers Mrs. Harper and Carol Sedlecek. They taught 99 children.

Routine set in, but not for long. In 1960 the PTA recorded, “We are working very hard for a high school for Seeley Lake…”

Marshall Gray, of Gray’s Mill, stated at a Governor’s Committee on Education held in Helena in 1961, that 100 high school age students lived in the Ovando, Condon and Seeley Lake area.

The bus ride to Missoula was over one-hour long making a high schooler’s day 12 hours long causing a high drop out rate.

The Seeley Swan High School was built in the 1964-65 school year, but it wasn’t completed until the middle of winter.

Martin Cahoon who attended his first six years of school at Placid Lake graduated from eighth grade in Seeley Lake in 1962. He then attended his freshman year of high school in Missoula taking that long bus ride.

The first half of his second year of high school was held in the Seeley Lake Elementary School until the high school was completed. During that time the grade school children attended school until early afternoon and high school was held until early evening.

The 1960’s

At this point the wonderful Historical Achieves assembled by the Seeley Lake PTA in 1961 end.

Enter forty years of school board minutes, which mostly deal with routine things such as paying bills, staffing, and the calendar, but problems big and small reveal the evolution of the school.

At first a great deal of time is spent on bus routes and schedules. When the high school was completed this once again became an issue.

The grade school asked the high school if they’d consider starting after Labor Day. The high school wanted to start earlier for sports.

Parent volunteers managed the library. Each volunteer had a different system for filing the 80 books so the school secretary/clerk became the librarian.

The school playground and walkways were muddy. Some blacktop was laid.

The dress code included “no jeans or shorts” and “no make-up.”

When the enrollment doubled in 1966 to 198 students the school was made a second class school, up from first class, because of its new size. With the change Principal Mecham was upgraded to “Superintendent.”

To help with crowding a “portable” classroom was added in 1968 and the roof of the original school, built in 1957, began to leak.

Four more classrooms, a library, kitchen and gym were added in 1969. With the addition of the gym, Jr. High basketball was now held at the grade school instead of the high school.

For the first time there was one grade per classroom. Four more teachers were hired and Murial Haines, now a 20 year veteran, was asked to stop assigning so much homework.


The 1970’s brought the departmentalization of the 6th – 8th grades. A music teacher was hired and shared with the high school.

A new dress code stipulated that dresses be no more than 4″ above the knees. Girls were allowed to wear pants. Head bands, bare midriffs and shorts were not allowed.

If boys had “long hair” they couldn’t play sports. Their hair could be “over the ears, but not in eyes.” In back it could be “full,” but not “flowing.”

The school cook was Mrs. “Butch” Townsend. She was head cook for 22 years. A school lunch cost 65 cents. A month’s menu included Split Pea Soup and “Spoonburgers.”

The school purchased 23-used manual and two used electrical typewriters. School Board minutes were no longer handwritten. A physical education teacher was hired for the first time. She also taught typing.

In 1974, the oil embargo caused gasoline prices to skyrocket. Many items had to be given up just to pay the bill.

When summer rolled around the superintendent was hired to paint the school. The school provided the paint.

In 1975 Cliff Nelson was paid $6.40 for taking care of the “score book and nets” at a basketball game.

Long time teachers Zelda Haines and Gayle Gordon were hired in the early 70’s.

Other long time teachers include Kathleen Thompson, and Kaye Mahoney who were hired in the late 70’s, along with Kathy Davis, hired to teach special education.

School secretary Karen Pagett was hired in 1979. She remained with the school until her retirement in 1998.

In 1979 Supt. Mecham retired and Robert Aumaugher took his place

Smoking in the gym was banned, but still allowed in the concession’s area. The school provided the ashtrays.

The 1980’s

In the 1980’s the student enrollment rose to over 200. Supt. Aumaugher resigned and John Hebnes took the reigns.

A school counselor was hired for the first time and Murial Haines retired in 1981 after teaching for thirty-years.

The custodian started a “Golden Trash Can” award. Tokens were given to the tidiest classroom. The class with the most tokens at the end of ten days got an additional 15 minutes of recess.

Playground rules listed, “no hitting, kicking, spitting, or roughing,” but the school itself was beginning to address some very tough, new issues.

The superintendent and the clerk attended classes to “strengthen their knowledge of computers.” An alarm system was installed.

Teachers attended a workshop on “Divorce and Its Effects on Students” and the “Aids Policy” was mentioned for the first time.

Equality in sports was required. Girl’s volleyball was added.

The facilities continued to change. A grant for the Community Park was received. The tennis courts, ball field, outdoor basketball court and storage shed were put in.

The ceilings in the first through fourth grade rooms (the rooms of the original school) began to seriously leak.

In 1986 modular classrooms were added to the Jr. High. Sixth through eighth grade moved into the new rooms. Later a breezeway connected the rooms to the rest of the school.

The late 1980’s were difficult years for the school board. Meeting after meeting included an “Executive Session,” in which items of a personal nature were aired.

The first principal, Dan White, was hired in 1989 to teach half time and to supervise the staff.

A new discipline method was installed and the movie “ET” was shown in the lower grades. It caused a stir among parents because it was rated PG.

The 1990’s

The 1990’s open with Board Members Charlie Parker, Bart Peterson, Jack Greenwood, Dennis Schneiter and Dennis Nemmers.

They had their hands full. By 1994 a booming economy and the Echo Boom (children of the Baby Boomers) was crowding the school with an enrollment of 270 in a facility built for 200.

A modular classroom was added to be the music room. Renting classrooms in the church across the street was looked into.

Several of the classrooms, now over thirty years old, were leaking like sieves. Children in those classrooms did their studies to the “ba-loop, ba-loop” of water dripping into buckets.

The teachers arranged the children so they wouldn’t get dripped on. Parents complained that their children were unable to get over colds.

The school board did a “walk through” of the school on a rainy day and decided it was time for another bond issue.

The community responded and the bond issue passed six years ago in 1995. The old school would get a new roof, an elementary wing and a new gym.

Construction began in the summer of 1996.

In September Junior High School teacher Cliff Nelson was shot and killed in his home in the middle of the night.

The next board minutes recorded “discussion on legal counsel,” “possibility of reward,” “memorial for Cliff,” and “continuation of parent patrol.”

Even the minutes seemed to mourn.

Construction continued in spite of the tragedy, but just like the early days, weather held it up.

School was postponed for a week in the fall of 1997 waiting for final approval to move in. When it did start, the students were amazed. Their crowded, damp, dark school was transformed into a roomy, dry, brightly-lit school.

For some, the new building aided the healing process. The Junior High was named The Cliff Nelson Junior High.

But more changes were to come. Principal White moved away in 1998. Shirley Johnson was hired in his place. She stayed one year.

Tom Larson, the part-time music teacher, was hired to be the principle in 1999. He still taught music part-time at the high school.

Long time school custodian, Shirley Keiper retired in 1998. The school hired a Maintenance Engineer and contracted the custodian work out.

A program called “Safe Schools” was implemented and the new discipline method based on “consequences” seemed to be working.

The PTA pitched in like the old days and helped upgrade the playground.

In 2000, after 11 years, Supt. Hebnes resigned. Bill Hyde was his successor.

Since its peak in 1994 the enrollment steadily. Possible causes include Montana’s aging population, layoffs at the mill and the waning of the Echo Boom.

Student enrollment now stands at 222, but the school is the best it has ever been.

The facility, which can hold 300 students, is ready for the future and just like always, the dedicated staff is committed to educating the children of Seeley Lake.

*Information taken from a letter written about the Seeley Lake Elementary School in 1957 by the late County Superintendent Adeline Bartron.


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