The Bear Creek School House is a warm place to go on a cold spring Saturday night. Photography: Thomas Lee
The Bear Creek School House is a warm place to go on a cold spring Saturday night. Photography: Thomas Lee

One room, no running water, no students in 70 years. But as photographer Thomas Lee shows, this schoolhouse in rural Montana still serves as the heart of a community.

The Bear Creek Schoolhouse hasn’t been the scene of a traditional class since 1942, but you’d never know to look at it. The paint is new, the roof is solid, the walls clean, the floor gleaming. It’s virtually unchanged since it was built in 1909, but it’s not a museum.

Six miles from Cameron, 17 miles south of Ennis, at the foot of the Madison Range, the Bear Creek School House has electricity and heat, but no running water. Members of the Cameron Community Club have been its caretakers since 1945. Every Saturday night in March, they bring water, coffee, and treats to the old building for Cabin Fever Pinochle Parties. Once in a while, they’ll have a dance or a cowboy poetry event.

A sign near the door says enrollment during the 1910s and 1920s grew to 40 students, then began to decline in the 1930s. Mona Durham, who organizes events for the club, says she’s the only former student still around. She walked three miles each way to Bear Creek School for the first and second grades in the mid-1930s, then moved into Ennis with her mother and older sisters when her sisters entered high school.

Perhaps 30 people show up for one of the Cabin Fever Pinochle Parties at the Bear Creek School House. Players change partners and tables throughout the evening.
Perhaps 30 people show up for one of the Cabin Fever Pinochle Parties at the Bear Creek School House. Players change partners and tables throughout the evening. Photography: Thomas Lee
Scores are kept carefully.
Scores are kept carefully. Photography: Thomas Lee
Friendships are kindled. Photography: Thomas Lee
Friendships are kindled. Photography: Thomas Lee
Treats are served. Photography: Thomas Lee
Treats are served. Photography: Thomas Lee
Mona Durham, 84, lives nearby and organizes the events. She says she’s the only former student still around. Photography: Thomas Lee
Mona Durham, 84, lives nearby and organizes the events. She says she’s the only former student still around. Photography: Thomas Lee

Photographer Thomas Lee documents true life in the West on his blog, Thomas Lee True West. For more outstanding Western photography, see the February/March 2016 issue.

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