Hot Springs students revive local museum

Posted April 21, 2022

This article originally appeared in the Valley Journal. It was written by Taylor Davison.

HOT SPRINGS — A group of high school students in Hot Springs were awarded a $5,000 grant on April 14 from the Montana History Foundation for their upcoming work on the LaRue Hot Springs Museum.

The Youth Entrepreneur/Jobs for Montana Graduates (YE/JMG) class is a combined program under a national umbrella meant to teach students life and employability skills such as communication, timeliness, and work ethic. The class is taught at Hot Springs by long time teacher and JMG specialist Sher Loberg. Her students have been helping the LaRue museum for two school years, the last class of five both rebranding the museum and creating its online presence to renew interest. This year, the eight students built upon that work and came up with a plan for an extensive outdoor area, along with the ambition to see the summertime attraction open year round, and worked together to write a grant to make it happen.

While other YE/JMG classes typically focus on creating and running a popup store, Loberg knew that idea wasn’t feasible for a town of only a few hundred residents. Instead, she saw the need and potential in the local museum, and the kids took it from there.

“The kids did it all themselves,” Loberg said. “They came up with what they wanted; it was a student-led project. They figured out the need, then they went out and got the bids, the volunteer donations of time and heavy equipment… They did it.”

In the application, each section split up to be written by a couple of the students, the kids outlined their plan to create a self-guided outdoor historic tour for visitors. They intend to accomplish this through restoration work on the present cabins, creation of a walking path, exhibits, and establishing a garden of native plants. Additionally, they intend to build a rock patio with a fire pit, and a picnic location consisting of benches and picnic tables for community gatherings and educational activities.

Montana History Foundation president Charlene Porsild and Program Director Ciara Ryan drove from Helena to meet the gathered students at the museum, where teachers Loberg and Bob Neiman surprised them with the large check and the announcement they’d won the grant.

“I was surprised,” said senior and returning YE/JMG student Ava Erny. “We were all confused (by the trip)… we saw more cars coming in and thought ‘what is going on?’ It was confusing but really exciting,” she laughed. Erny’s grandmother and long-time local plant expert Sue Ferguson of the Ancient Ways Healing Center will help establish the garden portion of the project on top of the difficult clay terrain.

After the check presentation, Porsild commented that of all the grant applications the foundation had received for the $40,000 they had to allocate, this was the only one written by students. “This is the first one we’ve ever funded that came from a school group,” Porsild said.

“We’re so excited to see it,” Ryan added. “(The students) are doing wonderful work.”

While the students weren’t awarded the entire amount they had requested, $9,096, due to funding allocation limitations, Loberg said they can still do the project with the $5,000 they were given. The group is used to getting creative within constraints, she laughed.

Senior and returning YE/JMG student Moira Lonergan led a tour after the award to walk the visiting foundation members through what the students have planned for the area. The initial idea behind the outdoor features was to provide tourists visiting during closed hours with an outdoor historic experience, but has expanded from there. The students saw a need in their community for a place for outdoor gatherings, and they intend to provide. “Whenever we use the rodeo grounds for things like Homesteaders, a lot of the older people don’t like the rodeo scene very much anymore… if we were to have this around here, they could come hang out here instead,” Lonergan said.

“(To get started) I think they need to mark where the walking path will go and do some dirt work, then we also want to move all the heavy equipment to the back of the property so it’s more accessible through the walking path. Meanwhile, we can start to clean those garden areas,” said Loberg. “It’s a good starting point. This is just the beginning.”

Museum curators Norah Potts and George Heinselman, and museum board president Christine Walsvick expressed their gratitude to the students for the hard work they continue to put in. “(The museum) has gone a while without any investment or upgrade,” said Walsvick. “This grant that the students pursued is huge… We’re so grateful to you.”

“They’ve done a great job. Now it’s just a matter of getting more bodies,” Heinselman said. The museum is always in need of volunteers, and the growth seen since the creation of its community board has started propelling it in the right direction.

To see upcoming events at the LaRue Museum, or to get in touch to find out how to volunteer, visit laruehotspringsmuseum.com.