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Past and present — Cayuse Prairie School marks 125 years of learning

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | October 15, 2023 12:00 AM

The first one-room schoolhouse for Cayuse Prairie School District was a log cabin. In 1904, the log cabin was sold to a man named Clark Smith for $10, according to a booklet on the school’s history.

Originally part of Egan School District, Cayuse Prairie was created in 1898. Past and present students and staff crossed paths and shared smiles in the hallways of the school on Sept. 23 during the district’s 125th anniversary celebration.

For many years, the cabin was used as a shop on the Snell family farm, where Lois Hook and her brother John Snell grew up less than a quarter mile from the existing school at 897 Lake Blaine Road. Hook and Snell shared some memories of attending Cayuse Prairie during the 125th celebration.

“I was here when it was just the old school,” Snell said, referring to the portion of the building that was constructed in 1903.

The 1903 building, complete with a belfry, was originally constructed through a $1,500 bond issue and remains a functioning part of the school, housing the main office. The original bell was purchased in 1904 for $6.

Snell, who graduated from eighth grade in 1964 in a class of 12, recalled the school had a couple of classrooms and two outhouses. The rural Montana school didn’t get indoor plumbing until 1955 when a “sweeping modernization program was commenced,” with the district utilizing its full permissive levy, according to the school’s history book written by members of the 1976 Cayuse Prairie Parents & Friends Club.

“The school sits on the corner of the farm we grew up on,” Snell said, who lives just a couple of houses away.

The building would expand again in 1965. The school continued to expand with additions built in 1970, 1981, 1992, 1995 and the last in 2010.

Families and community members also had a hand in helping with improvement projects.

“Dad helped build the merry-go-round and the swings,” Snell said, while he and Hook’s mother were active in the P&F Club and helping keep the school clean.

For decades Cayuse Prairie was not just a school but served as a gathering place for the wider community. In the 1920s, the school was transformed into a dance hall. It was the place to be on Saturday nights with people traveling by horse and buggy “for a little stompin’ and raisin’ cane — although not quite as famous as the ‘Old Yeoman Hall,’” the history booklet states.

Cayuse Prairie continues to be a close-knit school community with generations of families attending the rural K-8 school.

Snell’s daughter, Jody Harp, is the Cayuse Prairie School office manager. Harp’s children also attended the school.

“It is home,” Harp said.

Outside the school, the Abbrescia family stopped to take a photo in front of the iconic belfry. Joe Abbrescia said he moved to the community from Chicago in 1976. His parents went on to establish Abbrescia Fine Art & Pottery Studios.

“I graduated in 1978. There were 11 kids,” he said, in comparison to three classes of 35 sixth-graders in the city. “What I really loved about the smaller school was you got to play all the sports and be involved in all the things.”

For his daughters, Nicole and Jessika, this included participating in teacher Joan Creek’s yearly production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“It was a huge deal for many, many years,” their mother, Martha Abbrescia, said.

Serving on the school board gave her a front-row seat to her daughter’s graduation ceremonies.

“I gave her, her eighth-grade graduation diploma and her, her eighth-grade graduation diploma,” she said with a proud smile.

Nearby, a potential future Cayuse Prairie Mustang, Nicole Abbrescia’s 13-month-old daughter, Raegen, giggled as she toddled around letters staked in the front lawn that spelled out “happy birthday,” trying to get away from her grandfather.

From 41 students in 1914 to more than 300 students today, the Cayuse community continues to grow. What was once all farmland is now dotted with development, yet the qualities of a friendly community hold fast.

When Cayuse Prairie Principal Amy Piazzola first stepped foot into the school 12 years ago she knew it would become her family's new home despite establishing roots in Noxon.

“The first time I walked through here, I mean, it was a feeling that I never had before like I had been here before. It just felt like home from the first time that I stepped foot on the property. And after that, I knew without a doubt that I would be the next administrator here,” she said. “I just knew in my heart that this was why I was meant to get my [master’s in educational] leadership degree.”

The school has posted a slideshow of photos of the school’s history online www.cayuseprairie.com.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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A Cayuse Prairie School"souvenir" from 1907 lists the names of advanced, intermediate and primary pupils taught by teacher Isaac Minear. The president of the school board was Henry Weaver. The souvenir cover reads, "The school is out — a little draught. We've drunk at Wisdom's Spring. May deeper draught & by us be quaffed. And may we to her cling."

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Once its own district, Cayuse Prairie moved into this 1903 school building, which is still in use today and houses the main office and administrative office. This photo was taken in th 1960s. (Photo provided by Cayuse Prairie School)

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Cayuse Prairie School students gather for a group photo in this photo that was thought to have been taken around 1934. (Photo provided by Cayuse Prairie School)

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The 1954 Cayuse Prairie ball team. Whether baseball or softball, ball was a popular sports activity.(Photo provided by Cayuse Prairie School)

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This 1938 photo is of teacher Nellie Redlingshafter's seventh- and eighth-grade Songophone Band conducted by student Bill Byrne (who later donated the photo to the school). Popular in the early 1900s, the Songophone was a brand of an easy-to-play brass instrument with a bell-shaped horn. A person would hum into the mouthpiece to amplify their voice and could produce music similar to the cornet, according to brasspedia.com. The site notes the Songophone as nearly identical to its predecessor and competitor — the kazoo-like Zobo. (Photo provided by Cayuse Prairie School).

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A 1954 class photo of Cayuse Prairie's upper grades. (Photo provided by Cayuse Prairie School)

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A class photo of Cayuse Prairie School fifth- and sixth-graders and teacher Mrs. Cornell taken during the 1968-69 school year. (Photo provided by Cayuse Prairie School)

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Four-H students ride a float in a parade down Main Street in Kalispell around 1959. Four-H remains a big activity in the Cayuse Prairie community. (Photo provided)

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The 1978 Cayuse Prairie School girl's basketball team.

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Former Cayuse Prairie School student Lois (Snell) Hook and former school clerk Linda Benson look at a "Cayuse Prairie Favorite Fixins" recipe book produced by the P&F Club. (Hilary Matheson/Daily Inter Lake)

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Current Cayuse Prairie School Principal Amy Piazzola and former principal Mr. Babcock at the school's 125th anniversary celebration. (Photo by Jody Harp)