Camas Prairie: the original one room schoolhouse

Posted on 07 March 2008

(Editor's note: this article first appeared in Montana Living magazine. The school has since closed.)

By NICK DAVIS

Should you ever have reason to call the Camas Prairie School, located some fifteen miles from Hot Springs, MT, the ringing sound you hear will do nothing to discourage any preconceived images you may carry about one-room schoolhouses.
And should you have the good fortune to hear the schoolteacher's voice on the line, after a series of flat, long, slow rings that suggest a wall-mounted telephone with separate hearing and speaking cones, her response will flat-out send you reeling to a place in your mind filled with the echoes of young Laura's Little House on the Prairie, or Tom Sawyer's den of torture, or***.
"Yes, this is Miss Wickum. How can I help you?" Ah, Miss Wickum. Immediately you conjure her: pinched wire-rimmed glasses strangling a stern nose, thick gray-laced hair pinned back in a tight bun, somber-colored dress that sweeps the floor as she walks and reveals neither her wrists nor her neck. A woman, in short, who paces with the sharp eye of a prison guard and can splat a fly at three paces with a wicked yardstick.

camas prairie gym

Photo by David Reese, Montana Living

As is often the case, the reality of this situation is far removed from the cultural archetypes we ingest from television and even books. As she moves about the classroom, interacting with the eleven students under her charge, it is immediately obvious that she posseses the timeless traits of so many of the fine men and women who help shape the lives of public school students: she's warm, open, and unequivocably devoted to the well-being of her charges. 

If the little-schoolhouse-on-the-pairie stereotype doesn't fit Miss Wickum, though, it most certainly does fit the building she teaches in, a structure that has seen over five decades' worth of teacher ministrations and student shenanigans. As the last of six schools built on Camas Prairie from 1910 to 1941, the schoolhouse's sturdy frame and intimate interior offer a straight shot into the mythical era of this country's homesteading history.
That history can be traced to the early months of 1910, when Camas Prairie--a roughly fifteen-mile square tucked into the Bitteroot mountains in the southwestern corner of the Flathead Indian Reservation--was opened up to white settlers. Despite the physical hardships faced by the families and immigrants who poured into the valley to stake their 160-acre claims, education was established as a high priority; by 1920, there were five schools serving the prairie.
That year saw the enlargement of the Central School site and the subsequent closings of the four outlying schools. Students attended the Central School through twelfth grade until 1935, when the new high school in Hot Springs became operational. Elementary students continued attending Central School until 1941, when it burned down shortly before the start of the school year. A new school was built across the street, and the Camas kids of today bounce off the same walls now as their grandparents did then.
Jay Erchul was born in Camas Prairie in '41; both he and the school were six years old when he entered as a first grader in 1947. As an authority on education in the area, Erchul's credentials are iron-clad and, perhaps, even genetic; Jay's dad Joe drove the schoolbus (and in a winter pinch, a school sleigh) on the prairie for a whopping 52 years, and Jay himself was a teacher and principal in the Hot Springs school system for 34 years. Though he's officially retired now, Erchul maintains a steady presence at the school that first taught him. Every day at 11:15, he brings a hot lunch from the Hot Springs school to the eleven students and two adults at the Camas Prairie schoolhouse. There, he and his wife--in her 11th year as teacher aide at the school, Bev Erchul is a local educational icon in her own right--call out the temperatures of the transported grub and dish it out to the flock of hungry mouths.
From the recesses of Erchul's mind comes the kind of images you'd expect of a prairie schoolhouse, a vibrant string of memories that create a kind of pastoral historical postcard. He points to a charred spot on the wooden floor, recounting how, as a second grader, he watched the teacher try to wrestle a large log into the wood stove, a tussle that ended with a sizeable chunk of coals burning the floor in front of the wide-eyed kids.
He recalls the two outhouses behind the schoolhouse during his time there, and how during warm weather the kids' bladder size would unexplainedly shrink, necessitating numerous privy trips, and how the bite of cold winter air on exposed body parts would miraculously diminish those calls of nature in both frequency and duration. He remembers fondly the dances and socials held in the neighboring gym, grand parties made all the more festive through the presence of Delco power-plant generated electric lights (Camas Prairie did not receive electrical service until 1951; Hot Springs had been wired a decade earlier, but the war effort diverted the necessary copper wiring before it was stretched to the prairie).
As Erchul speaks inside the room where he spent a good many of his younger years, his trip down memory lane is an easy one to join, for much of the school seems unchanged still, even to a stranger's eyes. Sure, the wood stove is gone now, replaced by a more modern--though perhaps less adventuresome--oil furnace. But the huge windows on the north- and south-facing walls point to a pre-electricity era when the benefits of copious natural lighting outweighed the distractions surely caused when fidgety young gazes met the enticing hills rolling about the valley.
Upon the wall hang the very same chalkboards that Erchul and his classmates learned their ABC's on, though the dry-erase boards installed last year mark another small concession to technology. And the waste-not-want-not edict so crucial to the homesteading lifestyle lives on, evidenced by the happy herd of pigs who live adjacent to the school, grateful recipients of whatever scraps of hot lunch the kids can't manage to scarf down.

The biggest difference between the Camas Prairie school of 1998 and the school of Erchul's time lies in the makeup of the class itself. Jay's class of five, which graduated from eighth grade in '54, more than doubles the size of any grade now (there are two students currently in the third and fifth grades), and the total number of students at the school commonly ran into the low to mid twenties.
But individual homesteads were gradually absorbed by larger ranching operations, the local mill moved to the nearby town of Plains in the mid-fifties, and the post-war baby boom petered out, leaving the school with a fairly constant enrollment of around ten students since the early '60's.
And as the number of students changed, so did their backgrounds. As can be expected from a school built on an Indian reservation to handle a burgeoning amount of settlers and their offspring, the classes at Camas Prairie were no stranger to diverse ethnicities. During the early and middle parts of the century, a typical Camas Prairie class consisted of a majority of mostly white kids of varied European descent mixed with fewer numbers of Flathead Indian children.
Jay remembers that one of the two Indian kids in his first-grade class did not speak English and, since the speaking of their native Salish language was not encouraged, had to rely on older Indian students for translations. Gazing back from our relatively enlightened present, the practice of suppressing Indian language and customs on their own land looks horribly misguided, but as Erchul is quick to point out, "back then everybody was out there trying to chase the American dream, to assimilate as much as possible the American way of advancing through life."
That the Camas Prairie school helped some students advance through a fine American life is undeniable; Erchul's distinguished career in public education is a prime example, and the list of Camas Prairie graduates includes John Bonner, a former governor of Montana.
At the same time, it's no surprise that Flathead Indians who attended the Camas Prairie school hold a decidedly more ambiguous opinion of their time there. Angeline Andrew, a tribe member who entered the school as a young girl in the early forties, says "it was okay, I liked it okay." And her brother, lifetime prairie resident John Stanislaw, offers that "I got some education there, probably all I need."

The current makeup of the Camas Prairie class is radically different than it was in the homesteading days. Of Miss Wickum's eleven students, all but one have a significant Indian heritage. In fact, six of the kids come from one family and sit in the same room as their grandmother, Mrs. Andrew, and great-uncle, Mr. Stanislaw, did some fifty years ago.
Now in her third year of teaching, Bev Wickum is a newcomer to Camas Prairie. But she is by no means a stranger to the dynamics of small class sizes; she grew up on Montana's rural High Line, attending a school with a class of seven kids, and her two previous teaching years were spent in Locate, MT, at a tiny schoolhouse that served nine students.
Inherent in the teaching of any small group of rural kids is a unique set of responsibilities, and this array of students from a shared ethnic background is no different. Being the primary education provider for these eleven Camas Prairie kids--they range in grades from kindergarten to sixth--comes with, Bev says, "a lot of challenges." "There are quite a few different learning levels in this group," she continues, "and sometimes I think the hardest part of the job is changing myself, and the teaching methods I use, to be effective in this particular classroom."
One of Miss Wickum's primary efforts so far this year has been an attempt to soften the cultural boundaries between herself and the kids. "Sometimes I think that they're intimidated by the things I'm trying to teach them," she says. "When they get frutrated at a reading or a math problem that I've assigned, I say to them 'Look, it's okay that you're struggling. How do you think I'd do if you gave me a test on the meaning of pow-wow dances or some other part of your culture that I'm not familiar with?'"
One of the educational tools that Bev has at her disposal is the field trip, a perennial student favorite that, in the case of the Camas school, is greatly assisted by the small size of the group. As part-time school clerk and bus/van driver Kim Kizzier says, "the logistics are a snap. We say, 'okay, everyone on the bus!' And we're off." As of the middle of October, the kids had already gone to Quinn's Hot Springs, the old prison at Deerlodge, and the Salish-Kootenai People's Center in Pablo.
If school board member Sheila Matt--who moved to Camas Prairie as a seventh grader and attended school in Hot Springs--has her way, the Flathead tribe will have an even greater presence in the education of these students. She recently learned that because the school is on the reservation, the Salish language can be taught as the required second language. She says of this happy irony, "Isn't that wonderful? Fifty years after Indian kids were discouraged to speak their native tongue at school, we're now able to bring someone in from the tribe to teach their descendents that very same language."

So now, perched at the end of a century only slightly older than its own history, this little school stands poised to realign its cultural dynamics. Ideally, according to Mrs. Matt, the education received by the Camas Prairie children will blend a knowledge of the past with a template for the future. "We want these kids to be academically prepared for when they move on to a bigger school," she says, "but we also want them to have a real understanding of their background, where they come from."
Dorothy Andrew, daughter of the aforementioned Angeline Andrew and mother to six of the eleven Camas Prairie students, is quite pleased with the positive environment that the school provides for her children, noting that "they hate to miss even one day of school". A student herself, in the legal-secretary program at the college of technology in Missoula, Mrs. Andrew believes that the little schoolhouse on Camas Prairie gives her kids a solid springboard towards what must be the ideal, universal maternal wish: "I hope they discover what they really want to do in their lives, and they don't feel pressure from anyone, including myself."
And like every child from any culture, the eleven daytime inhabitants of the Camas Prairie school deserve nothing less.



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