By Jill Evans, Administrator of the Stumptown Historical Society
The first children in the Whitefish area went to school in Columbia Falls, driven there usually by ox team, sometimes by horse or sleigh. The children were few, because pioneers tended to be young men, single or newly married, and both women and children were scarce in the earliest years.
In January, 1904, a school was operating with public funds for a trial period of three months in the church on the hill north of the railroad tracks (the Presbyterian church). Its teacher was a Miss L. M. Light of Spokane. Board members were W. S. Dodge, John E. Skyles, and R. I. Oliver, Charles Bayha was clerk.
When the Great Northern required a few months later that all trainmen baring their families to the new division point, the Whitefish school situation for September, 1904, became critical. A contract for $2,387 was let to W. I. Miller to construct a school beside the Whitefish River at Railway Street. Two rooms only were ready and occupied in the fall of 1904; about sixty children attended, E. M. Hutchinson and Miss Nellie Monk were teachers. Although the plans called for an additional room, a basement, and a hot-air heating plant, these were not ready the first year.
A third room was added in 1905 by conversion of the janitor’s room into a classroom. As families grew, the building was added to repeatedly until it had eight rooms. It was used until 1913, when new schools were opened. It was finally town down April 4, 1936, by Walter Kaber, who had bought it from the school board.
The first school principal was E. M. Hutchinson. He was followed by B. F. Maiden in 1906, J. W. Wheat, Bert E. Gibson, and H. L. Gloyde, who was the first given the title of superintendent. Gloyde was followed by Harry L. Hayden, who served from 1911 to 1923, except for one year in Polson, when he feared rumors that the division point would leave Whitefish might be true. Hayden followed by E. A. Hinderman, who served thirty years, retiring in 1953. After “Hindy” came W. S. Mikel (1953-57, Winton W. Wetzel (1957-60, and Lloyd Muldown (1960-71), Russell Giesy, who had been high school principal for many years, became superintendent when “Mullie” retired.
Most of our information about the first years of Whitefish schools comes from the Minutes of the Board of Trustees between September 12, 1905, and May 15, 1912, a book lost for many years, but found under the rafters in the wall when the upstairs balcony of Central School was remodeled and made into a classroom in 1965. Eldon Lee, a member of the board and clerk from 1942 to 1967, found the book and turned it over to the Whitefish library. It makes fascinating reading, sometimes sketchy, but always reflecting the diligence and dedication to education of these early Whitefish citizens.
The school board in 1905 was made up of R. L. Oliver, W. F. Doonan, and J. A. Monk. C. A. Matthews was clerk. Regular board meetings were held quarterly.
The board was directly concerned with the hiring of teachers in those days, and they hired Miss Frances Mahan in 1906 for $70 a month, Miss Marie Shoaf in 1908 and Miss Olivia Forcum in 1910, “providing she has the proper credentials.” Evidently she did, for Miss Olivia taught school in Whitefish from 1910 until 1940, when she retired at the age of seventy-four. In February, 1956, the entire community celebrated her ninetieth birthday. E. A. Hinderman, under whom she taught for many years, once said that whereas many teachers were too old to teach at sixty, he would have kept Olivia Forcum on into her eighties if he could.
The early school board was responsible for raising all moneys needed by the schools; there were no state or federal handouts in those days. Perhaps for the reason, board members kept their eyes carefully focused on the taxpayers’ purses and did not waste pennies.
Note: The quoted material is taken from Stump Town to Ski Town, by Betty Schafer and Mable Engelter, written in 1972 and reprinted by the Stumptown Historical Society in 2003. It is available for sale in the Whitefish Museum located in the Train Depot.