Southeast Montana is built on and shaped by the stories and memories of the past – and the town of Colstrip is no different. History is told through pictures and paintings, fossils and bones, and tales told over a cold beverage at the end of the day.
The stories of the town of Colstrip are also told through the town’s one-room schoolhouse that still sits in town today. Built in 1924 and now known as the Schoolhouse History & Art Center (or SHAC), this building taught young minds of all ages and grade levels. As the children’s parents moved to the area to take advantage of farming opportunities and the booming coal mining industry, the kids filled their minds with stories of times past.
Colstrip had been a quiet community before the mid-1920s, with farming being the main way of life, when the Northern Pacific Railway established the town to provide coal for steam locomotives. When the railroad began using diesel for their trains in the late 1950s, the mine was shut down. It was sold to the Montana Power Company, and re-opened for mining operations – including the building of coal-fired electrical plants – in the 1970s.
Today the museum combines all the tales of the past alongside the present, including a rotating exhibit in one section of the building.
A Long Road to Becoming a Museum
When the building was no longer needed as a schoolhouse, it held several titles before becoming a museum: apartment house, teacherage, etc. The 1980s looked like it could be the end of historic structure, as it sat abandoned and was a target of vandalism. However, a group of townspeople rallied together and bought it for just a dollar with the intention of bringing it back to its former glory and preserving the history of Colstrip. Since then, it has served as the town’s museum – displaying the importance of nearly 100 years of history.
Preserving the Past
Walking in the front doors of the former schoolhouse today, you will be greeted by dozens of black and white photos telling the stories of years past. Displayed chronologically, “The Colstrip Story” spans nearly 100 years and features prominent figures from the past, as well as significant events, such as the building of the coal mine. The photographs are deemed the “Wes Chapman Collection,” named after the donor. Chapman lived in the area during the 1970s -80s, while the coal-fired electrical plants were being built.
Appreciating the Present
While the permanent gallery celebrates the successes and memories of the past, the rotating exhibit showcases all the stories being created in the present day. Today, that means showcasing Laurin Kluver. An artist from eastern Montana, Kluver captures the beauty of one of the region’s mainstays for centuries: horses. Twenty-seven of her pieces are on display in the schoolhouse, offering a chance to look through the lens of a local artist. This rotating exhibit runs through the end of October 2020.
SHAC’s past exhibits have included other Montana artists including Nicole Keintz and students from the community and neighboring towns such as Ashland, Lame Deer and Busby.
Schoolhouse History & Art Center is open year-round from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Traveler Alert: While SHAC is currently open, please remember to check ahead of time as services may not always be open or may change, stay home if you’re sick and follow local guidelines and protocols. For more information, visit SafeOutHereMT.com.