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Teaching to Save

Grant from MT History Foundation Will Carry On the Good Work

In May 2011, MPA excitedly launched The Montana Touchstone Project, a new project to document and preserve threatened history and buildings in Montana's small towns. Taken from the ancient Greek practice of touching stone to precious metal ores to determine their purity, the word "touchstone" means "a fundamental or quintessential part or feature" expressing the value of community history to sustaining a region's unique identity and culture.

Inspired by past fieldwork, Executive Director Chere Jiusto and former MPA staff member Kate Hampton, conceived a statewide project to save the heritage of threatened places. Working on-site, MPA teaches community members how to preserve and digitize photographs, maps, artwork, and letters; conduct oral history interviews; and research and complete Montana Historic Property forms on important sites and buildings. Electronic versions of these materials are then uploaded by local libraries to the Montana State Library's Montana Memory Project while the real-life versions of these resources are housed in a stabilized local historic property.

Happily, public and private entities have embraced MPA's innovative approach. Touchstone funders include the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Steele-Reese Foundation, Humanities Montana, the Jerry Metcalf Foundation, Montana Community Foundation, Montana History Foundation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A generous grant from the Montana History Foundation's Preserve Montana Fund will support new workshops in 2012.

"We are so grateful for the hearty support of friends and funders," reflects MPA's Team Leader Patty Dean. "With their generous backing, MPA has assembled a top-notch 'Touchstone Team' to lend a hand all across the state." The team is made up of Montana Historical Society archivist Caitlan Maxwell, Montana State Historic Preservation Office preservationist Kate Hampton, Montana State Library training specialist Jo Flick, and Clay Scott, an independent, Helena-based journalist. The compelling human stories Scott records in Touchstone communities are later broadcast on "Mountain West Voices", his on-line and public radio program.

Montana's record-breaking wet spring shifted the inaugural Touchstone workshop to Lewistown from the railroad town of Danvers where MPA had assisted descendants of the town's early Bohemian Catholics in taking title to the inactive St. Wenceslaus Church. The newly-painted and re-roofed church will serve as a summertime repository for archival materials associated with Danvers.

Workshop attendees brought photographs, home movies, slides, letters, diaries, objects, and recorded memories and stories associated with rural Fergus County communities and homesteads. Family members surprised each other as each brought out photographs the others had never seen!

The second workshop in early June took place in Big Arm, a homesteading town sited on the western shore of Flathead Lake and on the Flathead Reservation. Recently, MPA has worked with the town's dedicated volunteers to rescue and restore a one-room schoolhouse that ultimately will serve as a repository for their tiny town's history. Big Arm Association president Alison Meslin remarked: "The level of enthusiasm and love of preserving history from all of you was indeed contagious. Many folks, these days, seem not to care about history, in any form, so having you here gave us great encouragement to continue."

To nominate communities for a Touchstone Team visit, contact Patty at patty@preservemontana.org.

To listen to Clay Scott's interviews from the Touchstone Project, visit http://mountainwestvoices.org.

To view some of the collections on the Montana Memory Project webpage, go to http://cdm15018.contentdm.oclc.org.

The goal of the Touchstone Project is to provide community volunteers with the knowledge and confidence necessary to go out and continue the good work they have already begun and MPA is honored to share in this work. Ready to hit the road once again, the Touchstone Team can't wait to see what treasures, buildings and stories we'll find and help preserve this autumn!