Schooling in the nation’s first national park has taken on different forms for the last 150 years. From soldiers as teachers to a permanent building in the 1960s, the history of schooling in Mammoth gives a snapshot of Yellowstone National Park.
The first informal schooling for Yellowstone National Park families was likely established at the park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs in the 1880s, according to a 2008 publication by park historian Lee Whittlesey.
At that time the park was managed by the U.S. Army and it was common for a soldier to be assigned to teach students, or parents would pull together the money to hire a teacher, according to Whittlesey.
It was also common for families to send their children to school in Bozeman or back east where extended family members lived, said Alicia Murphy, Yellowstone National Park historian.
This format continued until the National Park Service — which was founded in 1916 — formally established the Mammoth School in 1921.
While Gardiner had a school established in 1903, it was a challenge for families who lived full-time in Mammoth to send their children there. Before cars and the road that connects the two towns, it wasn’t feasible for parents to send their children each day to school, Murphy said.
Later, with Mammoth in Wyoming and Gardiner in Montana, there were tax complications and parents weren’t allowed on the school board, she said.
As the number of people working for the park increased — often bringing their families with them — more children were born in Yellowstone and it became obvious the park service needed a school of some kind, Murphy said.
Without a dedicated building, the school moved to a handful of locations and didn’t receive any supervision or funding from either the state of Montana or Wyoming before 1948, according to Whittlesey.
In the mid-twentieth century, the federal government sent money to many national parks through Mission 66, which helped to modernize the national park system.
“Yellowstone was the recipient of quite a lot of funding for Mission 66. One of the things they did here was to build the lower Mammoth housing area for employees,” Murphy said. “As part of that little community, they finally built a (stand alone) school.”
The Mammoth School was one of three built in a national park using the Mission 66 money.
A Bozeman architect designed the school, which included classrooms, a gym and a small kitchen. It was meant to be both a school and a gathering place for Mammoth residents.
“Once we got the school, which was completed in 1963, then we as National Park Service employees and parents could have more say in the curriculum and schooling of children,” Murphy said.
The school was in operation from 1963 to 2008, when it was ultimately closed due in part to low enrollment at that time. The demographics of national park employees was shifting, with less families and more people working seasonally.
“We went through a spate where there were really very few children in Mammoth… Enrollment did get so low that it wasn’t feasible,” Murphy said.
The school also closed because an agreement between Montana and Wyoming was reached to send tax money for those Wyoming residents living in Mammoth and attending school in Gardiner, according to Murphy. The solution also included the ad hoc creation of a school board position for a park service employee.
In the last few years, the demographics have shifted and now there are more families living in Mammoth, with a bus bringing children to and from school in Gardiner, Murphy said.
Murphy said the lack of a school in Mammoth has made it harder to attract and retain employees who already have children and are looking for schools with more opportunities.
“Housing is a huge issue for us,” Murphy said. “It really impacts if we can attract somebody who has a family and wants to be able to have a home… It’s very expensive to live outside the park and is also very far (to commute).”
Murphy knows of some families who have moved to Bozeman so their children could go to a bigger school district.
“Sometimes the one parent moves to Bozeman with the kids and one parent lives and works in Mammoth but goes home to Bozeman on the weekend,” Murphy said.
For employees living in the interior of the park near Yellowstone Lake or Old Faithful, they often have to make other arrangements for their families. It’s common to have one parent move to West Yellowstone or Cody with their children, according to Murphy.
Overall, Murphy said, there are fewer employees with families living in the interior of the park.
With the Mammoth School closed for the last 14 years, the building has transitioned to a community center for Mammoth residents and a pre-school for children of park service employees. It commonly hosts orientations for new employees, movie nights for families and trainings for employees.
“It still serves its original purpose as a location for education,” Murphy said of the schoolhouse.