Ford Schoolhouse named to National Register of Historic Places

A group of Ford Schoolhouse students gathers outside in front of the snow-covered school (1940)

Nestled in a little-developed mountain valley in Northwestern Montana, one can find one of the country’s newest additions to the National Register of Historic Places – the Ford Schoolhouse. Managed by Flathead National Forest, the structure is located up the North Fork of the Flathead River and just over nine miles northwest of Polebridge, a town that serves as a quieter gateway to Glacier National Park.

The Upper North Fork is rich in wildlife and plant resources, and was used by the Kootenai, Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Blackfeet Tribes for centuries before Euro-American fur trappers entered the valley in the 1820s. The area remained a largely undeveloped wilderness until the 1890s, when construction of the nearby Great Northern Railway – as well as newly discovered prospects for oil near Kintla Lake (later within Glacier National Park) – contributed to increased activity in the region. Settlers, in hopes of finding oil, took up homestead claims under the Forest Homestead Act of 1906. Although those hopes never materialized, a small, hearty community remained.

Of the homesteaders, those with children struggled to find schooling in the Upper North Fork due to the valley’s remoteness and severe winters. As a result, the Ford Schoolhouse was built in 1918. The one-room building was constructed on a local resident’s property from logs harvested on site. After completion, the school’s enrollment generally ranged between six and twelve students. A standard curriculum of reading, grammar, and arithmetic was provided, as well as those topics most pertinent to an isolated homesteading community – such as “manual training” in skills including carpentry, and horticulture education in the form of students preparing and cooking lunches with produce from the school’s garden.

When not in use as a school, the Ford Schoolhouse served as a focal point for community life. It hosted a variety of activities, from school fundraisers to social events like Christmas and New Year’s Eve programs. Some events were specific to the North Fork community, such as the “Hard Times” dances (aptly namA 1920s glimpse inside Ford Schoolhouse shows desks, chalkboard, and booksed after the difficult homesteading life). In addition to educational and social uses, the Ford Schoolhouse provided a central location for neighbors to share letters and artifacts sent home by loved ones serving in the armed forces, thus hosting a public display of World War I mementos.

The Ford Schoolhouse played an important role in the lives of North Forkers, and its cultural significance is not lost on today’s local community members and USDA Forest Service staff. The structure was in a state of disrepair when Flathead National Forest, along with public volunteers, began restoration work in 2019. Additions that were constructed from 1950 to 1981 were removed. In July 2022, the metal roof was removed with help from a local Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) crew. It was replaced with a more historically accurate cedar shake roof in September 2022. Ongoing restoration efforts will continue to preserve the structure and bring it back to its original appearance.

Given that the Ford Schoolhouse is the only remaining one-room log schoolhouse in the North Fork region, the need for preservation is crucial. An application for Historic Place designation was submitted in 2021, and the structure was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places on August 23, 2022. Flathead National Forest views the designation as a great success, thereby helping to ensure that the spirit of this isolated, yet resourceful homesteading community is preserved for generations to come.

Workers replace roof shingles on Ford Schoolhouse