High-school football season, like smoke from a not-so-distant wildfire, once again has descended upon Montana.
Observing the realignments and reclassifications of Montana High School Association members provides a learning moment for students of the sociology, economics and history of this ever-changing state.
Perhaps the most notable changes this year are the demotions of Anaconda and Plentywood. Anaconda, formerly in with the biggest schools in Class AA and most recently in Class A, was moved down to B. The Copperheads still get to field 11-man teams, but not so Plentywood, which went from B down to Class C, where they will play eight men at a time.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. About 120 years ago, Anaconda was in the running to be capital of the then-newest state when Copper King Marcus Daly attempted to bribe the Legislature. He got caught and Helena remained the seat of state government.
The world’s tallest all-masonry smokestack remains dormant, smokeless and silent, overseeing the former Superfund slag heaps of smelter offal, which now lies beneath a sculpted Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, Old Works.
Colstrip has had its ups and downs. It was a tiny Class C school until the 1970s, when the Montana Power Co. built electric units One through Four, bringing in people and taxes. Colstrip vaulted to a spanking-new Class A school with an Olympic-size swimming pool.
It has since been demoted to Class B. It might be noted that two former Class B state champs—Klein near Roundup and Bearcreek outside of Red Lodge—have ceased to exist entirely.
In the state’s northeastern corner, Plentywood reflects an all-to-familiar pattern of the unsettling of farm country. Some of these dryland, hardscrabble farm counties have been losing population since the 1920s and ’30s.
In addition to the economics of scale involved in the consolidation of smaller farms into ever-bigger ones, as farmers retire they either sell or lease out and either stay or go. Either way, farmers long past their child-bearing years are not adding to school populations.
Also in northeastern Montana, perpetual Class C basketball contender Outlook long ago ceased to exist. Back in the day, a seemingly endless stream of Selvigs (including long-time Lady Griz Coach Robin Selvig) fueled the Blue Jays’ title hopes.
Back in the early 1980s, I was on the front lines—or at least the broadcast booth, when we had one—of this demographic metamorphosis while in Shelby as editor of a short-lived oil magazine and a reporter for KSEN radio.
By default, I became the Voice of the Sunburst Refiners. With the refinery long gone, a church being converted into a saloon and school enrollment flagging, Sunburst would be spending its first year as a Class C school, playing eight-man football.
The Kevin-Sunburst field might be called the birthplace of fracking, as nitroglycerin was used to break up oil-bearing formations. That boom or yore brought the famous Jack Dempsey vs. Tommy Gibbons Heavyweight Championship Fight to Shelby in 1923.
In the 82 years since that fight, a lot had changed in the oilfield and not much of it for the better. No golf course has been built on the salt-laden soils sterilized by fracking wastewater.
And no one could tell me where the road games would be among these hyphenated opponents—would it be Joplin or Inverness, Kremlin or Gildford, Rudyard or Hingham (Blue Sky)?
Just drive east on Highway 2 until you see a bunch of cars.
Throughout farm country, schools other than Plentywood have been able to save on football equipment by moving from Class B down to eight-man—or fewer—ball.
Fort Benton, the birthplace of Montana and once the world’s most inland (steamboat) port, went from a B powerhouse down to 8-man, as did the Chinook Sugarbeeters, whose sugar factory had gone the way of Sunburst’s oil plant.
Chester, a Class B rival of Shelby when I was there, took it one step farther. Not only did the Coyotes slip down to Class C, but they now combine with Joplin and Inverness to put eight guys on the field.
Especially in farm country, the beat has gone on. In 1982, the high-school association began its program of fielding six-man teams.
Schools that once fielded teams first combined with one school, then another, to put half a dozen boys on the gridiron at once.
Former champs Geraldine and Highwood now combine. Moore, Hobson and Judith Gap have half an hour drive time to get to practice. Likewise Stanford, Denton and Geyser. With Roy-Winifred and Melstone-Custer, it´s more like an hour.
Plenty of drive time to ponder—when the school goes, what happens to the trophies?