Photo and Story By Amanda Breitbach Ragsdale
Two years in to a project that once seemed insurmountable, Wynona Breen is celebrating having nearly reached the halfway point in her transcription of the Evelyn Cameron diaries.
The diaries cover a span of 35 years in Cameron's life, from 1893-1928.
"The first that I heard of these diaries, I wrote to the fellow in charge of the historical society in Helena and asked if it were possible for them to make the Xerox copies for me, and he wrote back and said no," Breen remembered. She was told the material was too delicate to copy, and because of the way the diaries were written, she wouldn't be able to read them anyway.
"And so I decided, of course, that I would read them if I ever got the chance."
Breen, 87, first learned of the diaries' existence around the time author Donna Lucey published her book, "Photographing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron," in 1990.
Lucey visited Terry to conduct research on Cameron in the late 1970s. She connected with Cameron's best friend, Janet Williams, and was given access to materials including photographs and the diaries, which had been all but forgotten in Williams' basement for nearly 50 years. Following publication of the book, those materials were donated to the Montana Historical Society in Helena.
Breen’s first opportunity to view Cameron’s diaries came through Lory Morrow, photo archives supervisor at the Montana Historical Society, whose family had lived in Mildred.
"In visiting with her, I said I'd been wanting to get my eyes on one of those (diaries) for some time," Breen explained.
Morrow was able to send her scans of Cameron’s 1898 diary on a disc.
The work was difficult. Cameron’s handwriting is old fashioned and spidery, and she used a number of abbreviations for names and common expressions. To make the diaries even more incomprehensible, she often changed ink colors, and on busy days, she would crowd two lines of text into a single space to conserve paper. That first year took Breen three months to translate.
“Evelyn’s handwriting is not the problem. She just tried to crowd too much information onto those little lines,” Breen said, acknowledging, "There are some portions in there that are just unreadable."
Nonetheless, now in the 16th year of Cameron’s records, Breen has a remarkable ability to read and understand her words.
Once the 1898 diary had been transcribed, Breen met with locals Lance Kalfell of the Prairie County Economic Development Council and Elizabeth Smith, then an Americorps VISTA volunteer with the Evelyn Cameron Foundation (now the Evelyn Cameron Heritage, Inc.) Together, they worked out an agreement with the Montana Historical Society to continue transcribing the diaries.
It has been a mutually beneficial agreement. Jodie Foley, state archivist at the Montana Historical Society, mails Xerox copies of the diaries to Breen whenever she requests them. The packets generally contain about two years of diaries. These days, Breen is generally able to transcribe at a rate of about one year of diary entries per month, without delays or interruptions.
She types for about five hours each day, making notations on days Cameron “took an exposure” with the corresponding negative number if it is known.
When a year is finished, the pages are put into protective plastic sleeves and then into three-ring binders, which Smith has made covers for.
Bound copies of the Xeroxed diary pages and the corresponding transcription are available in three places: at the Prairie County Museum and Cameron Gallery and the Evelyn Cameron Heritage in Terry and at the Montana Historical Society in Helena.
In the beginning, Breen said she hadn't any good idea how long it might take to complete the project.
"I told them then I knew I'd never live long enough to finish them," she said.
Now, it looks like the project may be complete within a year and a half to two years.
A number of volunteers have helped transcribe Cameron’s writings, but Breen herself has been the driving force behind the project and has done the bulk of the work.
“Sometimes they only do a few pages and decide they can't do it, and others have done more,” she said.
Local people who have helped with the project include Sandra Ross, Pam Lassle, Linda Bruski and Alice Pehl of Terry, as well as Karen Stevenson and Amanda Breitbach Ragsdale of Miles City, and more volunteers that are needed.
“I hope we get nine or ten new typists out of (the article in the Tribune),” she joked.
Other people have donated supplies and materials, including the binders and plastic sleeves that house the completed work.
Breen started from the beginning with the 1893 diary and is now in the middle of May 1908. Cameron died in 1928, and just one of her diaries from those years is missing, the book that documented 1924.
"It just got lost in the shuffle somehow," Breen supposed.
Much of the material in Cameron’s diary entries is mundane, tracking the weather and the staggering amount of work she did each day, as well as the Camerons’ finances and publications.
Some of the most interesting tidbits for Breen have been local news items.
“For instance, at one time there was a murder/suicide out at ... the place that we lived on later," Breen offered. She and her husband Charlie lived on the property known as the Coal Creek Ranch, 25-30 miles southeast of Terry, when they were first married and lived there for 14 years.
Breen said she was told to watch out for ghosts when they first moved to the ranch. In reading the diaries, she has had the opportunity to learn firsthand from Cameron what authorities knew of the incident.
"It happened that the group from the coroner's office here in town who went out to check what had happened went right by Evelyn's house and stopped by ... and reported on the way back," she said.
The authorities brought the bodies back to Terry, then sent them to Miles City for burial.
“Nobody knows for sure (what happened) except the man shot his wife in her bed, then went to the other room and shot himself,” she explained.
“It is especially interesting to read what she writes about folks whose descendents we are acquainted with, or about places where we have traveled or lived,” she added.
The transcription project has no doubt been satisfying in other ways for the retired teacher and longtime local historian.
Breen has been a Prairie County Museum Board member from the beginning. Along with Mary Haughian and Iva Brubaker, she worked to publish "Wheels Across Montana's Prairie," a collection of Terry’s history. The group had about $4,000 left after the book was published and donated it to help start up a local museum.
In 1974, the stockholders of State Bank gave the group the former bank building in downtown Terry to use as a museum. Until then, there has been no local museum.
Breen said she and others realized that all the local artifacts and stories were going to other communities like Circle and Miles City that did have county museums.
"And, of course, we needn't have worried because we've got the building chock full and flowing over," she laughed.
Those working on the diaries anticipate the transcriptions being most useful to researchers and historians, but it is also available to interested local residents and students.
Published April 14, 2010