After moving to Missoula from Atlanta in 1989, photographer Neil Chaput de Saintonge did a lot of exploration in his adopted state.
“I probably covered half the paved roads in Montana in my first five years here,” he said.
On his travels, he was struck by all the little schoolhouses with their slides and swings out front, and he was amazed to find that many of them were still operating. He remembers learning that that were more than 100 one-room schoolhouses in Montana at the time, most of them in Eastern Montana.
Years later, he and Keith Graham, an associate professor of photojournalism at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, decided to visit and document some of these schools before they were gone.
During the 2013-14 school year, by which time the number of operating one-room schools had dwindled to about 75, Chaput de Saintonge and Graham drove thousands of miles on 18 trips around Montana, visiting 25 schools in all.
“Chasing Time,” an exhibition of about 30 of their photographs from that project, will be on display beginning Thursday and continuing through March 30 at the Northcutt Steele Gallery on the campus of Montana State University Billings.
On March 23, there will be a catered reception for the exhibition, followed by a presentation from Chaput de Saintonge, who will talk about their project and some of their experiences on the road. (Details below.)
Chaput de Saintonge said some of their most memorable visits were in the southeastern corner of the state, to schools in Alzada and Hammond and to a school north of Hammond known as Hawks Home School—which wasn’t a home school but a public school located in a building previously inhabited by hawks.
In Hammond, teacher Barb Lapke had been there 13 years and that year she had three students. She was also the only teacher they visited who was still living in a teacherage, as homes provided for teachers by the school district are called.
“She loves being out in the middle of nowhere,” Chaput de Saintonge said. “She was definitely one of our favorite teachers.”
At Kester School, 26 miles northeast of Jordan, they spent the day with teacher Pepper Werner and 15 children in kindergarten through sixth grade—the biggest school they visited.
Chaput de Saintonge said they enjoyed the school on the North Harlem Hutterite Colony northwest of Malta so much that they went back three times.
“They were just the friendliest people,” he said. “They invited us into their homes, and the kids loved non-Hutterites being there. They treated us like foreigners. They treated us like stars.”
One touching moment came during a visit to Pass Creek School near Belgrade. The students were learning Christmas carols that day, Chaput de Saintonge said, and at one point an eighth-grade boy was teaching carols to a girl in kindergarten, who was sitting in his lap.
“We saw so much of that, which was really, really wonderful,” he said.
“I think, generally, Keith and I would both agree that the education they get … was better than in other schools, because they get so much attention and so much care,” he said.
Chaput de Saintonge also offered this clarification: although they use the term “one-room schoolhouse” because it is so common, many of the schools had more than one room. But all of them had just one teacher, he said.
A press release from MSUB announcing the exhibition said there were nearly 200,000 one-room schoolhouses in the United States in the early 1900s. Today, fewer than 200 remain—and no state has more than Montana, where about 60 are still open now.
“The result of their labors,” Northcutt Steele Gallery director Leanne Gilbertson said of Graham and Chaput de Saintonge , “is a moving, revealing photo essay.”
The exhibition was first shown in Missoula and has since gone to Sidney, Chaput de Saintonge said, and it will be mounted in Great Falls after it leaves Billings.
Graham and Chaput de Saintonge, who owns the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula with his wife, Jeanne, are hoping to publish a book based on the project. Just four days ago, Chaput de Saintonge said, Graham told him he has a publisher ready to move forward with the book.
The Northcutt Steel Gallery is on the first floor of the Liberal Arts Building on the MSUB campus and is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment.
On March 23, the reception will start at 5 p.m., followed at 6:30 by Chaput de Saintonge’s presentation in Room 148, the lecture hall next to the gallery.
On March 24, in the same lecture hall, Chaput de Saintonge will offer another free presentation, this one at 10:30 a.m., on the subject of recent trends in digital photography equipment.