The sounds of schoolchildren laughing, screaming, and chattering echoed through Unionville for nearly a century. The small schoolhouse in Unionville has served both students and the humble mountain community since at least 1872. According to Mark Sherman, a longtime resident and local historian, the schoolhouse was originally JC (“Pony”) Ricker’s IXL Mine office. Mr. Sherman said the building was moved to Unionville just over a mile from the site of the IXL mill near the town of Park City. A 1912 photograph from the archives of the Montana Historical Society (MTHS) shows Mark, about 8 years old, standing outside the school with his teacher and all-female classmates. In 1964, Mark wrote a wonderfully descriptive article about Unionville and the surrounding country to celebrate the city’s 100th anniversary. Apparently his writing lessons at school were well learned. The largest single source collection of Unionville photos in the MTHS archives are photos taken by Mr. Sherman and his family.
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The schoolhouse is on property that was once owned by the National Mining and Exploration Corporation. This company was owned in part by the famous Roosevelt family of New York, including Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, Sr. During this time and for several more years, the city was actually named Roosevelt in honor of these early investors in the important Whitlach mines. In 1867 the firm’s superintendent, Professor Hodge, was charged with the murder of Mr. Moore, a woodcutter. He was found not guilty but warned by the Roosevelts that the Vigilance Committee was unconvinced by the trial and had decided to rectify the perceived injustice. The story goes that Hodge quietly left that night to save his life.
New CEO SJ Jones and his wife came from the East and settled in Unionville. The locals promptly gave him the nickname “Sound Judgment Jones”. Jones’ wife was a devout woman, and perhaps this explains SJ’s decision to provide a place of worship in Unionville for all denominations; This may have been the IXL Mine office that was relocated from Park City. The building was used for church purposes on Sundays and housed the parish school for free on weekdays. It’s possible that SJ was responsible for bringing the original structure to Unionville.
The earliest newspaper mention of the Unionville school was in 1872 as a polling station for a Republican elementary school. On June 17, 1875, an announcement was made that the children were on summer vacation after a long schooling. The community had raised $450 to run the school that year, and there were still a few hundred dollars in the bank to prepare for its reopening the following winter.
In 1893, Miss Louise Shapley replaced Miss Turnley’s schoolteacher when she traveled to Chicago to see the World’s Columbian Exposition. Imagine the stories she would have shared with her students upon her return. Miss Turnley was evidently an energetic and forward-thinking young governess. Six years later she was elected Superintendent of the Lewis and Clark County School.
In the 1912 photo with Mark Sherman, the school looks very similar to the original IXL Mine office. The school operated until 1917 when arrangements were made for pupils to attend the newly established central school at Helena, which in 1915 had replaced the earlier central school of 1875.
In 1935, Unionville experienced something of a revival after the devastating Helena earthquakes and the reopening of the school. A small antechamber with a bell on an open platform was added around this time. Perhaps the small log cabins withstood the tremors a little better than the brick houses in the city. Some people had kept family cabins as summer residences, which have now been taken into use as full-time residences after the quakes.
Another surge of activity in the years following World War II brought new young families to the city. At one point in the 1940s, the school age census reached fifty students. The small schoolhouse must have been cramped with so many students.
At some point, the school district added land to the school campus and planned to build a new school. The new school never materialized and the original school was modernized by volunteers in 1949. A more spacious vestibule was also added that year and a large industrial steel-framed multi-panel window was installed in the east wall. This unusual feature creates a beautiful, light-filled space that is uncommon in one-room schoolhouses. The school was permanently closed after the 1954 school year.
The cute little building still stands in the center of town on a prominent knoll above Unionville Road. After a period as a red schoolhouse with white siding, its historic white paint and green livery have been restored along with a neat new roof. This project was the result of hard work by local and greater Helena area volunteers from 2013-2015 and a $5,000 grant from the Montana History Foundation for materials.
During its years as a school and even after its closure, Unionville School has always been a center of social life for this small town. As recently as 1990, people cast their votes here during elections. A work party for the school’s caretaker concluded with a picnic dinner served at Wendel Lake (now Cox Lake). Dances, Christmas parades, Easter egg rolls, 4H meetings and much more took place in the school building. Since the recent repairs, the historical school has hosted community picnics, a historical art exhibition, and a series of wonderful community concerts.
Recently, local residents have become aware that the school has structural issues that need to be addressed if it is to survive for years to come. Upon examining its condition, people have found that the current building is the result of generations adding to and repairing a very old and humble structure. This is confirmed by several articles on working groups and local discussions on the state of the school over many decades. We hope that one more gathering of volunteers can extend its lifespan by a few decades. Contributions to the school repair fund can be mailed to the Lewis and Clark Co. Heritage Tourism Council, 301 N. Park Ave., Helena, MT 59623 (make the check payable to Lewis and Clark Co. and write “Unionville School” in the memo line). If you attended Unionville School and would like to share a memory or photos, call HTC at (406) 447-8357.
Scott Walter wrote this for the Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council, which publishes the monthly column “Nuggets From Helena” in the Independent Record.