Back in 1893, the state took a large section of ground east of Miles City to establish what was then known as a “reform school.” It was for juveniles who committed crimes, as well as children who were homeless or came from homes where their parents couldn’t take care of them.
In fact, there are records of juveniles who requested to be placed in Pine Hills, so they could be fed and cared for.
In the early days, what we usually refer to simply as “Pine Hills” had both male and female inmates. In addition to being a school, students at Pine Hills were expected to learn a trade. This is why the name “Industrial School” came into use in later years. Students were taught an industrial trade.
When girls were in attendance, they were taught to cook, sew, make butter and soap and other helpful household skills that were expected of young women in 19th-century America. The uniforms worn by the students were made by the students, as were the shoes.
Pine Hills, in its early days, was nearly self supporting. The farm around the school raised dairy cattle, beef cattle and all the vegetables the students ate. The boys were taught farming, blacksmithing, carpentry and shoe-making, all useful skills.
For the most part, everything that was eaten at Pine Hills was raised at Pine Hills. If there was excess, it was sold to help pay for the institution.
The school was separate from the town to the extent that it had its own cemetery. The first person buried there was George Buchanan, who had been admitted October 3, 1896 and died November 6 of the same year. Since Alice Bell, who had been admitted on March 31, 1896, died on November 26, 1896, it is possible there was an epidemic of one of the childhood illnesses that have for the most part been eliminated.
While they were kept separate, after a few years, it was decided that the female population should be housed in its own facility. They moved out around 1902 and Pine Hills has been just for young men ever since.
When Pine Hills first opened, students were up at 5:30 a.m. and kept working or in classes all day, retiring at eight o’clock at night. Today, student activities begin at 6:15 a.m., so there hasn’t been much change there. The students’ time is scheduled for the 16 hours a day they are awake.
While some programs have changed, Pine Hills still has a fully accredited high school.
While the agricultural programs faded out of use for a number of years, they are starting to come back, with students participating in 4-H and raising vegetables, flowers and corn in a specially designed facility on site.
While most of the early-day buildings that once sat elegantly on the far east end of Main Street are gone, some to fire, some simply to becoming too old to be functional, a large dairy barn and a building that served as a gymnasium, theater and chapel remain from the early 20th century.
The cemetery also still survives. The last student to be buried there died in 1934. There were no markers, but through the efforts of the Rev. Leslie Payne, who was chaplain at Pine Hills in the 1970s, a stone listing all the names of those interred was placed on the fenced-off area.
Some things have changed at Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in the long years since it first opened, but some things haven’t. It is still “Pine Hills” to most of us, and it is still a place where young men get a second chance to put their life to right.