Community comes to school’s rescue

The last time the Chronicle took a close look at Lower Bridger School, back in 2000, the century-old schoolhouse was in pretty rough shape.

Paint was peeling; windows were broken; shingles were missing; and the foundation needed serious work. The Bozeman School Board had declared the building obsolete and was ready to sell it to a Seattle man who wanted it for a hunting retreat.

But members of the canyon community rallied. They convinced the board to sell the building to them instead — for $1 — with the promise that the community would repair the school and use it as a community center.

It’s been nine years, and the community has kept its promise.

“It’s actually in very good condition, structure-wise,” said Eva Veltkamp, vice president of the Bridger Canyon Historic Preservation Association.

The association formed nine years ago to take ownership of the school. “The community has come together several times when it needed work done,” Veltkamp said.

The association recently received a $1,500 grant from the Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society to do some floor and window repairs and painting — polish work, really. The school is in good enough shape that it could almost be re-opened tomorrow, Veltkamp said.

Lower Bridger School sits at the corner of Kelly Canyon and Bridger Canyon roads. It’s so small that it almost defies the modern mental image of how big a grade school needs to be.

It has two rooms, barely — a coat room was added sometime after the school was finished in 1900. Schoolwork was done in the relatively spacious classroom, which is still lined with chalkboards and filled with early 20th century books.

At its peak, about 15 students from all grades would have filled the room. It’s a kind of education Veltkamp knows well. Seventeen members of her family attended the lower school, and many more went to the Upper Bridger School, which Veltkamp herself attended in the 1940s and 1950s.

“I don’t feel like I missed out on a thing,” said the fourth-generation Bridger Canyon resident.

Lessons not learned could be picked up the next year by listening in when the teacher worked with the younger kids. And if you didn’t get it after that, well …

“What I missed, I didn’t need anyway,” she said.

Nowadays, the canyon community doesn’t use the Lower school as a gathering place as much anymore, not since the fire hall expanded two years ago to include a community center. And of course the kids all go to school in the city.

But Veltkamp said the school is still there for anyone who needs it.

And she hopes that’s the way it stays.

“When you lose your school, you lose your sense of community,” she said. “It’s part of our community. It’s hard to imagine the place without it.”

Do you or does someone you know do something, have something or enjoy something that’s a little weird or off-the-beaten-path? Send your story ideas to Michael Becker at [email protected] or call him at 582-2657.