Butte’s mines flourished because of the working class. The same could be said for its schools.
For the most part, Butte’s immigrant population came to this country with minimal or no education at all. That trend ended with them.
As these men and women married and started their own families, education became a priority for their children.
So much so that by 1910, there were two colleges, 29 public and Catholic grade schools, a public and Catholic high school, along with a school for kindergartners and an International Correspondence School.
Butte’s cup runneth over with history, and that history includes its numerous schools — past and present, and the people who walked those halls during their formative years.
Its back-to-school time once more and masks and social distancing are now the norm. But for Butte residents of more than 100 years ago, epidemics were not an anomaly.
In 1896, diphtheria was causing havoc throughout the city. Scarlet fever was prevalent too. So much so that many schools had to close for a period of time. During the interim, officials ordered that schools be thoroughly cleaned. Smart move on their part as many of the buildings were deemed “unhygienic.”
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 basically shut the town down as well, including its schools and any sporting events.
But the epidemics comprise just a small chapter in the history of Butte schools.
Case in point — Mary MacLane, a renowned author, graduated from Butte High School in 1899. Nicknamed the “Wild Woman of Butte,” the controversial author penned her first novel, “The Story of Mary MacLane,” in 1901, when she was just 19.
A more prolific author who graduated from Butte High was Myron Brinig, who wrote 22 novels in his lifetime.
Brinig left Butte in 1914 to attend New York University and later, Columbia University. His novels included “Wide Open Town,” “The Sun Sets in the West,” and “The Sisters,’ which became a 1937 film starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.
While not a common occurrence, another chapter in the history of Butte schools includes fires.
“Only the ice-incased brick walls” remained of the McKinley School, which was destroyed by fire just before Christmas on Dec. 13, 1919. It was a tough one to fight as the temperature hovered around 20 below. Not only did firefighters have to battle flames, some suffered from either frostbitten ears, fingers or toes.
A total of 3 million gallons of water was needed to put out the April 10, 1946 fire that destroyed the old Butte High School. It took nine fire departments to douse the flames. Not surprising, the fire also attracted a large audience, estimated to be at more than 10,000 onlookers.
Fire also destroyed the Whittier School on Feb. 2, 1953. A reporter from The Montana Standard described it as “a spectacular fire that sent huge tongues of livid flame licking against an overcast sky.” For a time, students attended classes at the Butte Civic Center.
It wasn’t a fire that closed the Franklin School, but the aftermath of the Aug. 17, 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale. The damage was so significant, the school was deemed unsafe. The abandoned school was destroyed by fire Jan. 24, 1961.
The history of Butte’s schools is long and varied, and not all can be included here. But, the fun facts featured below just may pique your interest.
- For a couple of years, starting in 1887, Professor Wm. Ringnalda held classes for those who wanted to learn to speak German and/or French. According to the Butte Inter Mountain of Nov. 10, 1887, “The members, who are shining lights in society, will hereafter converse only in court language at social events.”
- In 1889, Butte already had several schools. The Butte Miner reported on Sept. 14, 1889, that a superintendent and 33 teachers were employed at a high school, nine other public schools, a small college, classical school, two private schools and a kindergarten.
- The Butte Business College got its start 130 years ago. In its infancy, the college courses included shorthand, typewriting, and mechanical and architectural drawing.
- When Montana Tech opened its doors in 1900, it was comprised of one building and offered two degrees — mining or electrical engineering. The school, however, had been in the works for nearly 10 years. Spearheaded by Butte legislator J.K. Clark, a bill was introduced in February 1891. It was noted that Butte would be the smart choice as “Nowhere else can the practical application of the lessons to be taught in a School of Mines be seen on so extensive scale as here.”
- On May 7, 1910, Montana Tech students began construction of the “M” on the Butte Hill, using 882,000 pounds of rock. On April 29, 1962, under some pomp and circumstance, the “M” was lit for the first time. The Butte Hill is now referred to as the Big M.
- Nicknames were and remain the norm. If you went to the Hawthorne School, why you were a “Hero” but if you were a Washington student, you were a “Warrior.” “Cubs” went to the Sherman School and “Hawks” flew in and out of Holy Savior. The Madison was inundated with “Cheetahs,” while “Tigers” roamed the halls at St. Ann. “Vikings” stormed the McKinley halls and “Eagles” were prominent at St. John.
- If labor unions can go on strike, the students of the Webster decided they could too. On May 5, 1915, to protest the school board’s refusal to renew the contract of their principal, Miss Ada Madden, they went on a brief strike. Oddly enough, it was Miss Madden who convinced them to return to school.
- At one time, Washington Elementary was a junior high school. The students also had a newspaper aptly titled “The Copper Call.”
- The latter months of 1919 were down right chilly. So much so that they all closed for the year on Dec. 11, because of a shortage of fuel.
- The Butte School District on April 28, 1922, made the unpopular decision to lay-off 44 teachers and principals. Parents and students were in an uproar, particularly about one woman, who had been teaching for 30 years. One trustee, James Baldwin, told an Anaconda Standard reporter — “Even an old horse has its day. When you have an old broom that is worn out and of no use, you discard, do you not? For 30 years this teacher has taught in the Butte public schools and she has served her day.”
- Boys and girls of Central High School went their separate ways in 1924, as Boys Central and Girls Central would form. The schools combined once again to become Butte Central High School starting in the 1969-70 school year.
- Ever wonder how and when the annual and much anticipated Halloween school parade got its start. Principal Isabel Kelly of Washington School was the mastermind behind the yearly tradition. In 1929, the school administrator sat her students down and told them if they promised not to misbehave during Halloween, they could have a parade, costumes and all. Soon, “ghosts and goblins” from other Butte schools got into the act. The tradition continues today.
- James W. Gerard, former American Ambassador to Germany, gave the commencement address to Montana Tech graduates June 3, 1938. Gerard’s father-in-law was Copper King Marcus Daly.
- As a young boy, Butte native Father James Maginn attended Sacred Heart School. By 1922, he and his family had moved back to Ireland, but Maginn never forgot his childhood home. In 1949, now a priest, Maginn returned for a visit. A year later, while serving a small parish in Samcheok, South Korea, the 39-year-old priest was arrested and accused of being an American spy. He and two other Irish priests were executed around July 4, 1950.
- It was announced on April 6, 1952, that Butte’s newest park would be named Father Sheehan Memorial Park. The problem was there was never any formal dedication. That would take 46 years. On Sept. 13, 1998, the park was officially dedicated to the one-time Central teacher, principal, and superintendent of Catholic education in Butte who served as an Army chaplain in World War II. The European Theater was where he was sent, as he was fluent in five languages. During his service time, the Butte priest was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, Bronze Star Cluster, and the Purple Heart. He died from war-related injuries on Sept. 13, 1946. He was 38 years old.
- On Aug. 24, 1963, 3,500 pounds of dynamite exploded near the Pittsmont slag pile, killing one man. It also shattered nearly every window at East Junior High School.
- When nationally syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers came to Butte Oct. 2-3, 1962, she gave a talk to Butte High teens in their school auditorium. Students of Boys Central and Girls Central gave Landers their rapt attention at the Bow Theater. Her advice to them — “Couples should never park ‘just to talk,’ because when the moon is bright and stars are twinkling you can run out of conversation mighty fast.”
- The original name of Kennedy Elementary was Big Butte, but following the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the school was renamed in his honor.
- Fifty years ago, it was an early Christmas gift for the female students at Butte High School. A decision was made Dec. 1, 1970, that the teen-agers could wear pants. Forrest Wilson, the school principal told a Montana Standard reporter, “We are going on the theory that if pants are acceptable in the business world they should be acceptable for school wear.” The previous month, the girls at West Junior High School got the go-ahead; at East Junior High, the decision for pants was made Dec. 3.
- During the 1973 State AA basketball tournament in Missoula, the Butte High Bulldogs had to bow out as seven team members came down with the measles. The entire team was then quarantined.
- To make way for the expansion of the Berkeley Pit, the Harrison School was razed July 29, 1974. The Anaconda Company tore down Grant School for the same reason on July 21, 1975.
- In March 1983, Butte school trustees made the decision to close the elementary schools of Monroe, Hawthorne and Blaine. Three years later, it was announced that McKinley and Webster-Garfield would close as well.
- On Oct. 21, 1991, the decision was made to end the annual Butte High-Butte Central football game. The late Pat Kearney, in an interview said “The actions of many parents and alumni after the game — that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”