Education was an early necessity as far as the first settlers in the Bear Lake Valley were concerned. The various communities had hardly established themselves before a system of learning was developed, usually in the common meeting house where church, school, and community activities took place.
By persistent efforts, excellent results were obtained resulting in the fine school system Bear Lake County experiences today.
There were many changes over the years, however, going from one single school district to two non-Mormon sectarian schools and one independent district, to a peak of 20 regular districts before we ended up with the one school district, Bear Lake County School District #33, we have today.
The first community school was started in Paris in a one-room log structure with one door, a couple of windows, and a fireplace. That first school had 75 students which was 75 percent of all students who were of age to attend school, between the ages of six and 21.
Within a few years, every community offered some form of organized education, and soon 21 different schools were operating.
Once students had obtained a fifth-grade education, they were “deemed to be well educated as could be,” and it became apparent that a system of higher education was needed. Thus, in the fall of 1887, the Bear Lake Stake Academy was organized in Paris. Seventy-five students were housed wherever space could be found. Eventually, they ended up in their permanent home, the Fielding Academy.
Sanction was soon received for the Academy to be included in the LDS Church school program. The Church at that time sponsored 22 academies similar in nature in Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Mexico, and Canada.
Soon the Church schools experienced a decline in enrollment due to state taxation, and decided to turn the schools over to the states. So, Fielding Academy became a State high school. At the same time, a new system to be known as the “seminary” or “institute” program developed through which the Church offered religious training to its members and left the secular educational training up to the states.
Fairly soon, Fielding Academy was the sole secondary school serving an area half as large as Connecticut, drawing students from Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. That changed, however, in 1906 with the creation of Montpelier High School.
With the establishment of a state school system in Bear Lake County, the end of Fielding Academy was written on the wall. The taxpayers were charged whether or not they had anyone attending the school, and many couldn’t pay the taxes. For several years, Fielding continued to flourish and established one of the best records of excellence in the entire Church school system. Then the change in Church education policy took place and the Academy system was dropped in favor of establishment of a seminary program where church classes only were taught.
With the loss of the Academy, the west side of the valley knew they needed a school, so a hurried vote to obtain the Fielding Academy facilities and use it for education was passed, and Rural High School No. 1 was begun. This went well for six years, and west side students had the best facilities for a high school in southeastern Idaho. Then on Saturday, September 8, 1928, the Academy building burned to the ground.
Everyone scrambled to gather together supplies to keep students going wherever they could find a place. That’s when the colors of Fielding Academy, crimson and gold, which Fielding High School had continued, were changed. Blue and white uniforms were available so the school changed their colors to the blue and white we know as the colors of Bear Lake High school today.
A new high school was underway immediately, this time not on Academy hill. It was located on the eastern four acres of the original town square adjacent to the Tabernacle. Rural High School No. 1, Fielding, was back in business.
Meanwhile, Montpelier, larger than the other communities, developed two districts: Lincoln and Washington Districts 10 and 15, or more commonly known as “uptown” and “downtown” Montpelier. Consolidation of the two districts was accomplished in 1906. A high school was voted in, and building started the same year.
Independent School District No. 1 was started and the Washington School was built on the playground area of what is now the A.J. Winters elementary school, adjacent to the Purple Sage property.
Classes were held throughout the first two years at the rapidly developing Washington school located on the corner of 4th and Clay Street, and school colors, a mascot, the Bear, and school yells were chosen. Their colors were maroon and gray. The school became known as the Bears.
By the beginning of the third year, a portion of the high school was completed and the students moved into the first floor and the basement sections of the building. By the fourth year, the building was completed.
From then until 1937, when the high school, which is the current Bear Lake Middle School, was completed, the new Montpelier High School classes were held in what eventually became known as the Central School. The new Montpelier High School opened on October 22, 1937, and for the next 30 years until the current Bear Lake High School was built it was the show place of the community. The auditorium section continues to be one of the most used public gathering places in the valley.
State-enforced consolidation began as far back as 1952 when many of the small independent grade schools were consolidated with school eventually being held only at Paris, Montpelier, Georgetown, and Geneva.
Through the years, high schools that had developed in Pegram and Georgetown closed their doors, pushing their students toward Montpelier.
In 1967, a consolidation program closed Fielding High School, and students from the west side of the valley were transported to Montpelier, which became known as the Bear Lake County High school. At the time of consolidation, the Fielding colors of blue and white were kept as the colors for the new high school while the mascot of Montpelier’s school, the Bears, was chosen.
Today, a Middle School program is held in the old Montpelier High School, and elementary schools are held in Paris, Montpelier, Georgetown, and Geneva. District school offices are in Paris.
We in Bear Lake hold our school system as a point of pride. We have always been considered to have schools of excellence. Today’s system, consolidated from the 21 small “little red school houses,” as Pat Wilde called them, into a unified district, serves the valley well. And yes, we are proud of it!