Monday, July 8, 2013

Central School: Most Prized of the Lot

Red bricks mark two time capsules that lie beneath the sidewalk along Warren Street in front of Central School. Children ceremoniously placed them there a few years ago, confident that the school would still stand in 2055 for other generations of children to open. Central’s alumni brick project, begun a decade ago, illustrates how this historic school on its prominent vantage point is not just a building. The school itself is a time capsule of the memories of generations and the living heart of the Helena community. Bricks along the Warren Street sidewalk, bordered by small handprints, complement the time capsules and commemorate alumni and teachers from 1913 to the present time. Central’s importance, however, goes back much farther than 1913.

Officials broke ground for the first Central School, originally called the Helena Graded School, on July 29, 1875. City fathers put a great deal of thought into its location. Helena was still a rough-and-tumble gold camp, but its inclusion along the projected Northern Pacific Railroad’s route gave it new prestige. That fact, coupled with the locating of a federal assay office—one of only five in the nation—at Helena, helped wrest its designation as territorial capital away from Virginia City. In preparation for this honor, city fathers planned the best school in the territory on the most visible site. The location was so critical and the site they selected so perfect that it was worth the effort to relocate the city’s cemetery, established on that prominent ridge in 1865. Helena Graded School opened in January 1876, built with 350,000 Kessler bricks. It was the first school in Montana Territory with separate classrooms for the various grades, a high school curriculum, and a kindergarten.  By 1889, Central School was perhaps not the most architecturally pleasing, but of Helena’s seven public schools it was the “oldest and most familiar structure in the city and….the most prized of the lot."

Central School students pose behind the school circa 1910. Photo by Edward Reinig
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 74-104.292 GP
The current Central School, designed by George Carsley, opened in 1915, built just behind the older school. Sydney Silverman Lindauer was among its first students. Like many other native-born Helenans, she moved away but never forgot her roots. Born in 1909, Sydney carried memories of Helena with her all of her ninety-six years. As she embarked upon her life’s final chapter, she shared her fondest thoughts. Foremost among them were cherished memories of Central School. During her attendance, both old and new schools stood together for a time until the old Central was razed in 1921 and the two symmetrical wings were added to the new building.
At Central School, Sydney found memorable teachers and lifelong friends including classmate Marjorie Stewart, daughter of Governor Samuel Stewart. The Stewarts were the first executive family to occupy the Original Governor’s Mansion. Sydney credited Central with the foundation that molded her into a celebrated columnist. She wrote for the Red Bluff, California, Daily News for forty-five years.  Sydney recalled never wanting to miss a day of school. She walked to Central even when the snow was higher than the top of her head. Trustees at the Lewis and Clark County jail shoveled paths for the students. Sydney and her friends somberly watched the guards sit on piles of shoveled snow with guns drawn. And she never forgot the Central cheer that went something like “Strawberry shortcake, huckleberry pie, V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.” Shortly before she passed away in 2005, Sydney asked for a Central brick with her name and the date “1919.” She did not live to see her name set in the sidewalk, but she knew it was there along with the names of many other alumni she had known.

The present Central School will reach the century mark in 2015, when the first of the two time capsules is slated for opening. It would be the first existing Helena school to reach such a milestone. Central’s continued presence on its prominent ridge is more than a school board issue. It is a community concern. Not only does Central School maintain a place of honor as a historic cornerstone of Montana’s public school system, it is the ambassador for all Helena’s historic schools. What happens to it sets a precedent. And its fate affects not only the immediate Central neighborhood, but also the community and those who travel here to experience Helena’s historic landscapes.

Support the preservation of this community icon at, and if you have a Central School memory, please share it on the Montana Historical Society's Facebook page.

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