GRANTSDALE - If you heard the sound of a bell echoing across the Bitterroot Valley on Thursday afternoon, you heard the sound of Grantsdale Elementary School’s final moments.

The sound was very familiar to Grantsdale Community Church Pastor Muriel Gooder. She first sat down at her desk in the school in 1935, and she was there for the very last day in the school’s 124-year history.

“I have a lot of good memories at that school,” she said as she watched the emotional closing ceremony from her lawn chair. “I had to wait until I was 7 to go to school, because I had to walk through the deep snow and I had short legs. It’s a good school. There’s a lot of history there.”

Opened in 1889, the same year Montana gained statehood, the building and land will be sold and the school’s students and staff will be consolidated with Daly Elementary next year as a cost-saving measure within the Hamilton School District.

In the end, it was a budget shortfall that finally forced the closure of one of the oldest continuously operating schools in Montana, but it will be impossible to erase 124 years of memories.

Thursday’s celebration was both joyful and sad, and it mirrored the emotions of all the past and present students and teachers who gathered for the final moments. They all have the shared experience of knowing how special the little brick building is, and how it has been such an integral part of the community for so many years.

Principal Kathleen Dent, who is retiring after this year, choked up as she read the lyrics to “Simple Gifts,” a song written by Joseph Brackett in 1848. She then gave one final speech to the crowd of hundreds who gathered under sunny skies for one last potluck picnic and a rousing musical performance put on by the entire student body.

“For 124 years, gifts have been exchanged here,” she said. “Teachers here gave the students the gifts of reading, writing and arithmetic. They also gave the gifts of integrity, responsibility and respect. They gave the gifts of their time, and their dedication to the community. Students gave gifts as well. Whether they hitched their horses to the trees or came in on the big yellow bus, they always brought the gift of hope.”

Dent had to pause to regain her composure before she continued on.

“After a gift is given, a part of it remains with the giver and with the recipient,” she said. “The hundreds of students and staff who have passed through these doors take Grantsdale’s spirit with them. Even though the school is closing, its place in history and in our hearts will remain. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to spend some time here at Grantsdale feel very gifted by this simple little school. We do feel that we have been in the place we ought to be. We are truly grateful to have been in this place. Just right.”

Fifth-graders Amanda Basnaw, McKenna Smith, Olivia Walker, Ashlynn Charles and Janice Gingerich, who helped with the final flag ceremony, are part of the last class of Grantsdale graduates. They are looking forward to attending Hamilton Middle School next year, but all said it has been a bittersweet spring.

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“I feel like it’s a great thing that it’s the last day of school, so then the kids can move on,” Basnaw said. “But I feel pretty sad that it’s also the last day of Grantsdale up and running. I do feel that it’s OK to have kids go to Daly, because they’re moving on to a different life, but still a little sad that a part of history is closing down.”

Smith echoed her friend’s sentiments.

“I still feel bad for all the kids who haven’t made it all the way through,” she said.

Gingerich said that she knows she is a part of history.

“I feel sad, but I’m also honored because we’re the last graduating class to go through Grantsdale,” she explained. “I feel honored about that, but I’m also very sad that the other kids can’t go.”

Wayne Hedman, treasurer of the Bitterroot Valley Historical Society, talked to the crowd about fundraising efforts to move the historical bell and the bell tower to the Ravalli County Museum.

“It’s a very humbling, emotional and haunting day,” he said. “These kids made history today. They will look back on this forever.”

Fifth-grade teacher Kari Lehtola said that she has been walking a fine line with her kids the past few weeks between reflecting on the past and looking to the future.

“We were working on what we were going to do for our closing ceremony, and we came up with a quote from Orson Welles,” she said. “It went, ‘If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’ They are really going to focus on that and moving on from here and clinging to those memories and this chapter. But not necessarily just ‘this has to be the end.’ It can be a beginning, too. It’s good. My kids are ready for middle school, and the next chapter, and they’re excited about that and they’re looking forward.”

When the ceremony ended and the last piece of fried chicken was eaten, a long line formed at the bell tower, and everyone who wanted to take their turn tugging on the thick rope, and the Grantsdale Elementary School bell rang out across the valley one last time.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.