How the Eaton family founded Rocky Mountain College, article by Roman Jones

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The history of Rocky Mountain College is a tale of three schools, one fateful earthquake, and two brothers who wanted to educate the youth of Montana. In honor of RMC’s 140th anniversary, English professor Jacquee Dundas spoke about her grandfather, Lewis Eaton, his brother Ernest Eaton, and how their story is inexorably tied to Rocky’s.

Founded in 1878, the Montana Collegiate Institute was the first institution of higher learning in Montana; the school was open even before the area became a state. Renamed the College of Montana in 1883, brothers Lewis and Ernest Eaton began working at the school in the early 1900s. Lewis served as president from 1904 to 1908 while Ernest served as the college’s financial advisor.

The Eaton Brothers left the College of Montana in 1908. In the same year, the Eatons founded the Billings Polytechnic Institute (BPI) with help from John Losekamp and other financial backers. BPI’s grounds included a farm and was located on what would become the modern-day campus of Rocky Mountain College.

BW-Student GatheringSpeaking on the history of BPI, Dundas said, “That was a school where there were liberal arts, but also practical arts. They [the Eaton Brothers] wanted to educate the rough youth, all of these young ranch men and women. They wanted to educate people who didn’t have access to education. If you wanted to come to school and you had a couple cows, you could bring them and trade them to go to school.”

When the College of Montana was shut down in 1916 due to financial troubles, that school was moved from Deer Lodge to Helena where it merged with the Montana Wesleyan College and became Intermountain Union College (IUC) in 1923.  According to information found on the Billings Gazette website, IUC closed down after sustaining severe damage to its buildings during a 6.2 magnitude earthquake; the Helena Earthquake of 1935.

A decade later, IUC merged with BPI and students renamed the school Rocky Mountain College in 1948. The College of Montana had strong ties to the Presbyterian Church while Montana Wesleyan College was affiliated with the Methodist Church. Today, Rocky still has ties to both churches, having inherited them from its predecessors.

“The school was real service oriented,” said Dundas. “The students, for instance, built Kimball Hall. You know that funny little arch there? That was one of their architectural desires if you will. It was a real ground up effort. They had church backing. It was a Presbyterian-Methodist congregational.”

The BPI Science Hall, built in 1909, was renamed Eaton Hall in 1968 in honor of the Eaton family. Similarly, Losekamp Hall is named after John Losekamp.

The same year Eaton Hall was dedicated, Jacquee Dundas graduated from Rocky with a bachelor’s of arts.

Without the contribution of the Eatons, Losekamp, and others who formed the Polytechnic Institute, Rocky would not exist as it does today on the former site of BPI.

“They [the Eatons] struggled financially, but they managed to keep it [BPI] afloat and people in the community like Mr. Losekamp were very supportive,” continued Dundas. “There were people who donated land. The college owned massive amounts of land.”

After graduating from Rocky, Dundas started teaching at the college in 1998.

“This place means everything to me,” said Dundas. “I grew up in a house on 17th and Poly. I grew up right here. My son went here and graduated from here [Rocky].”

Color-Dundas Final“What is important is I believe the mission of the school hasn’t changed,” said Dundas. “We still have a religious base, but it’s very ecumenical, very accepting. We work toward diversity which this school always has. I think it’s a gem.”

“The base of the school has always been service,” continued Dundas. “When I was a little girl riding with my dad, he used to lecture me about service; how whatever you do for a living has to serve others. I am happy as an Eaton that those in charge are fulfilling that mission.”  

Rocky as a institution means so much to so many different people and has touched numerous lives through its various iterations, whether it was the College of Montana, IUC, or BPI.

For students attending RMC today, Dundas said, “I think that they’re a part of something bigger.” And they’re not alone.

The students taking classes, the faculty teaching courses, the associated staff running various departments, the workers who feed our campus, the people who keep the campus safe, and the community that continues to support the mission of RMC all are a part of something bigger. All are contributing their chapters to Rocky’s history, 140 years and counting.

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