A schoolhouse on the prairie

Exploring the land of "House of Sky'

By DAVID REESE/Montana Living — Riding horseback across a ridge at the base of Wall Mountain, I could see the farmhouse in the distance.

A single, lone antelope bounded away from me, then stopped, turned and huffed at me. I huffed back and he took off over the ridge, down and away in the Stuart Basin, a high-mountain bowl between the towns of Sixteen and Ringling, in the heart of the Big Belt Mountains of southcentral Montana.

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Wall Mountain sits behind this old schoolhouse near Ringling, Montana. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)

This is big country here, land as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by rolling ridges of timber and Wall Mountain, a bookcase of a mountain, long and narrow, like the China Wall. Old farmhouses dot the prairies, remnants of settlers' dreams, touchstones to the past when pioneers were given 160-acre plots by the government to try to settle this untamed country.

If they "proved up" on the land, meaning they went the entire five years and made improvements to the land, they were given another 160 acres. But this is tough land, high, dry and arid. Few people remained to see their dreams through. This area was the backdrop for "This House of Sky," Montana writer Ivan Doig's novel about growing up in Montana.

Doig, one of Montana's most noted writers, wrote about how this land shaped his family and urged them on in the face of adversity. Many years ago I spent five days riding through this country on horseback, as part of the Montana High Country Cattle Drive based out of Townsend, Montana.

From the saddle you can see where the settlers tried to make a go of it. Cabins tended to placed near water, in draws, with protection from the ever-present wind. All it took was one raw winter, one dry summer, and people pulled up stakes. I rode closer to the deserted farmhouse.

As I swung down out of my saddle, I was could see right through the homestead toward Wall Mountain. A rider approached from the other side. It was John Flynn, then county attorney in Townsend and one of the ranchers whose cattle we were moving. He explained to me that the homestead had actually been a school.

A squat, low-slung teacherage was attached to the rear. Below the school, the Stewart Basin spread out like the ocean, wide and green. The school served the few families of the basin, who had tried to prove up on their land but ultimately failed and moved on.

All that was left of the school was a grey, weathered framework of boards, and some pigeon crap. Wind whistled through the boards as I rode away from the schoolhouse atop Charm, Flynn's Appaloosa mare. I turned and looked back. I heard the echoes of schoolchildren running about.

I thought I saw the schoolmarm hauling water from the nearby spring, and inside the school I thought I saw one lone pupil , wearing a white shirt and suspenders, waving me goodbye. If you stand on this ground and listen closely, you can feel the hum of the earth, the electricity in this broad sky that are at once comforting and terrifying.

Maybe that's what brought the settlers here in the first place - or what chased them away. All that's left now are just ghosts, spirits calling us back to these big magical places.

I rode over the ridge away from the schoolhouse, but stopped to look back. The antelope had reappeared on the ridge, as if calling me back, as if he were saying 'Don't go, there is life here.' I'll return, I told him, I'll return.

— David Reese is editor of Montana Living