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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Jamie Ausk Crisafulli photo

Local pens biography of Evelyn Cameron

By Cindy Mullet

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Fulfilling a promise she made to herself while a student at Washington Junior High School, Lorna Milne has written her first biography, “Evelyn Cameron: Photographer on the Western Prairie.”

As a junior high student Milne, daughter of Iris and Curtis Milne of Glendive, said she read all the biographies of women she could find in the junior high library and when she couldn’t find any more, went to librarian Mary Harstad for help.

While Harstad was able to find more biographies for her to read, that experience convinced Milne that stories of women’s lives were under-represented, and she decided she wanted to write about them to give other teenage girls examples, she said.

It took her awhile to fulfill that promise. After graduating from Dawson County High School in 1975 she went to the University of Montana where her advisor suggested studying journalism was the best way to learn to write. She took that advice and is glad she did. It wasn’t easy, but the discipline she learned there has been very helpful in all the writing she has done, she said.

Immediately after college, Milne moved to Alaska to teach high school in Kasigluk, a Yupiit village. Native students in Alaska had just won a lawsuit giving them the right to education in their villages so there was a scramble to find teachers. Halfway through her interview for the position, she mentioned she was from Eastern Montana. The interview stopped and she was told she had the job, she said.

During her four years in Alaska, she was a free lance writer for the Glendive Ranger-Review, sending in stories of her life and work in Alaska, along with photographs her journalism students had taken, she said, adding that the summer before moving to Alaska she worked as a feature writer for the Ranger, “a wonderful experience.”

Returning from Alaska, Milne earned a graduate degree and then lived in Seattle for a few years before moving with her family to Helena. In Helena she started teaching at Carroll College as a permanent, part-time professor, a position that allowed her to spend more time with her children while they were young and then to finally begin working to make good that junior high promise she had made, she said.

A 1991 visit to an exhibit of Evelyn Cameron’s photographs at the Montana Historical Society convinced her she had found the subject for her first biography. She submitted a proposal to Mountain Press and begin research for the biography, she said.

At that time Evelyn’s diaries were available at the historical society but had not been scanned so Milne bought a notebook, copied out the entries for 1893, wrote her first chapter and submitted it to the publisher.

“The editors had lots to say,” she noted, adding that she took their advice seriously as she continued her research and writing.

While much of her research could be done in Helena, she also spent time in Eastern Montana, looking for sites where Evelyn and Ewen Cameron had lived. Her dad and brothers helped her figure out who owned those places now and helped her get permission to visit them, she said.

She and her youngest daughter also traveled to London to visit Evelyn’s childhood home and went on to Scotland where the Camerons had stayed during the year they returned to Europe, hoping to find answers to Ewen’s health problems. The details in the diaries made it easy to locate houses they had lived in, hotels where they had stayed and churches they had visited, she noted.

The more she read and researched, the more she learned about Evelyn, the more she came to admire, appreciate and identify with her.

“Like her I love manual labor and ‘ornithological ramblings,’” she notes in the preface to her book. “Hands down I would have chosen life in Eastern Montana over gentility in England.”

Milne is an avid gardener and was amazed at what Evelyn was able to grow in her gardens. Her meticulous records detailed the varieties of produce she grew, the harvest results and the amount she was able to earn from their sale.

“She had the resourcefulness and tenacity to survive in what my father calls a ‘hardscrabble place,’” Milne noted.

While Evelyn had come from a higher class in English society, she loved hard work, got along well with her neighbors and was often called on to help when someone was sick. She didn’t complain about their hard life and had a great sense of humor, she said.

Twenty six years after looking at Evelyn’s photographs and deciding to write about her, Milne feels she now knows Evelyn through her words as well as her photographs.

“I haven’t grown tired of Evelyn,” she notes. “I still enjoy the afternoons I spend with her and Ewen, learning more about the country I grew up in and the way in which another human being navigated a lifetime. I’m grateful she took the time to document her world.”

Reach Cindy Mullet at
crmullet@midrivers.com

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