Discovering Evelyn Cameron: Terry, Montana to Medora, North Dakota

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“….. she did not look upon herself as a victim of the harsh Montana climate or the grind of her daily regimen. On the contrary, she reveled in the rough outdoor life. And when she took up photography…..   with her camera she examined ever more closely the fabric of her workaday life, and ranged farther and farther through a rugged world, where the very air was exhilarating.”

Donna M. Lucey: Photographing Montana: 1894 – 1928 The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron

Evelyn Cameron was the reason for traveling to Terry, Montana, population 610. I had noticed one of her photographs and a paragraph of information about the “Evelyn Cameron Gallery” in a free Montana guide booklet picked up in Yellowstone early on. A bit of internet research made me even more curious, so Terry, where the gallery is located, became a destination.

280 miles south-east of The Bear Paw Battlefield, the 5 hour drive to Terry began as prairie and more prairie, until the landscape magically shifted to contours and eruptions, but still dry and grassy. This was the beginning of land formations aptly named, badlands.

 

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Arriving at dusk, I’d called ahead to one of the two campground options in Terry. “Ray’s RV Oasis” is at the end of a gravel road, on the outskirts of town. ‘Run down’ gently describes the general appearance of a tiny lot with some scraggly trees and what looked like might be hook-ups. A 50’s era full-time live-in trailer had an office sign on the door, and after knocking several times, out came Ray. Pale, tall, lanky, with stringy long hair, he had a cigarette attached to the corner of his mouth, and was dressed in plaid flannel pj bottoms, as well as an over-sized, very faded Led Zeplin t-shirt. There were no other campers in sight. He directed me to drive around the block to pull in.

I drove around the block, and kept going- creepy campground avoided.

When I called the second campground option, there was a site available, although it really did not look like Terry was ever inundated with campers traveling through.

 

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“Small Towne RV Park” was much less sketchy. No bathroom, but 8 sites (some had actual people and campers) with full hook ups. There was an available bathroom in the park nearby. The campground was creatively tucked between some neighborhood houses and a field of sunflowers.

 

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The owner was a very nice man trying to make a go of what used to be his mother’s business. He was kind and helpful, giving me lots of information about Terry and the area- this would be fine for an overnight stop. The Prairie County Museum was only a couple of blocks away, I could make do with the bathroom situation for one night, and there was quite a lovely sunset view:

 

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In the morning we headed up the street to The Prairie County Museum.

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An old bank building, the museum is filled to the brim with historical artifacts, arranged casually in every nook and cranny available. The Evelyn Cameron “Gallery” was actually the building next door. A bit run down, but filled with Evelyn’s amazing photos.

 

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The town of Terry came into being as many small mid-west towns did-  because of the railroads. A good water supply from the Ogallala aquifer (which is now disappearing) also encouraged ranching. It was the dream of successful ranching in Montana that Evelyn and her husband pursued for 30 years, and the elusiveness of that dream that encouraged Evelyn to become a photographer.

 

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There is much more to the story, but as a result of Evelyn’s discovery that people would pay for her photographs, and she desperately needed money, we have an amazing perspective of life in Montana at the turn of the 20th century. It is a story told with a remarkable eye for composition and light, in photos of landscapes, people, events and wildlife, captured with a Graflex camera that used glass plates, which Evelyn developed herself (when she wasn’t cooking, gardening, churning butter, repairing fences, mending clothes, etc.)

 

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Evelyn was a woman who had grown up in privileged English high society. There was nothing easy about living in Montana during the late 19th century, in addition to incorporating the effort and tasks that went with being a photographer at that time (so very far from point and shoot with an iPhone….)

With a passion for the landscape, the freedom, and even the strenuous work that was part of daily living, Evelyn continued to live on and run her Montana ranch even after her husband died, remaining there until her own passing.

 

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Leaving Terry, I was glad to have wandered into the tiny town set in a landscape of prairie and the beginnings of badlands. I wondered deeply about what inspired Evelyn’s strength and conviction…..

And then I focused, driving towards Medora, North Dakota, on what was before me and understood.

 

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