By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Eastern Montana is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and lonely places in the US. It is not an area for the faint of heart. The weather, the wide-open spaces, the solitude…it’s the kind of place that makes you or breaks you.
Which is why the story of May, Myrtle, and Mabel Buckley is all the more remarkable.
When Franklin and Susannah Buckley started having children, surely they hoped for boys. After all, farming in the Dakotas and ranching in Montana was man’s work. But the Buckley daughters were born for this land. Franklin was smart enough to know it…or perhaps his precocious, fearless, ambitious daughters gave him no choice. They bloomed on those prairies like a wildflowers after a snowy winter. They took to the saddle as if they’d been born to it. Their father’s ranch hands taught the girls to ride, rope, shoot, brand, round up, even break broncs, and called them, with affection, the Red Yearlings.
Confident in his daughters’ abilities, Franklin turned his 160-acre ranch in Terry, Montana over to the girls. This freed him up to manage the farm in North Dakota, other business ventures, and serve as a state representative. Papa was also confident that men would be men, especially where his three pretty daughters were concerned. Hence, he did not leave them unattended. The girls’ mother stayed close, keeping a watchful eye on her lovely Red Yearlings.
In 1914, neighbor and friend Evelyn Cameron photographed the girls working and playing on the ranch. Cameron wrote an article about Montana cowgirls and featured the feisty ranching sisters doing what they did best. While this article spread their fame to Europe, the girls had already been fielding invitations from Wild West shows and even President Roosevelt. Turned’em all down flat. May, Myrtle, and Mabel were ranchers. The profession was no game to them. The most play-acting they did was posing for the now famous and very collectible Cameron photos.
And I’d like to point out, they did all this in skirts. Oh, there was a brief scandal whereby the girls tried wearing split skirts. Apparently, Montana was not ready for culottes. The lady photographer was threatened with arrest over in Miles City for wearing the things. So the girls went back to skirts, wearing said culottes when nobody was looking.
May, the oldest of the sisters, never married. The more reserved of the three, she nursed her mother for years after a stroke, then died at only 50 years of age.
Myrtle, the middle sister, was a handful. One could guess she occasionally had bouts of the “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha” syndrome. She eloped with a ranch hand and had two children with him. The marriage failed and Myrtle late married rancher and neighbor George Straugh. That one stuck.
Mabel married Milton Gile and lived to a ripe old age.
Maybe they didn’t lead fairy tale lives, but the Buckley Sisters sure can inspire us to think past the prince and glass slipper and enjoy the lives we’re given.
By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Born in England in 1868, Evelyn Flower was the daughter of a wealthy East Indian merchant. She was born to a life of leisure and comfort. But not for it.
In 1889, Evelyn decided to walk away from the feather beds and army of servants. She married Ewen Cameron, a man who preferred the stars above to a roof over his head. He and Evelyn honeymooned in the Bad Lands of eastern Montana and fell in love with the area. They both lived to ride, hunt, and explore, and the chance to determine their own destinies was a siren’s song.
Full of hope, they bought a ranch and commenced to raising horses. The venture turned out to be beyond their experience, however, so they down-sized and attempted to breed polo ponies for the boys back in England. If the first ranching effort was a failure, this second idea was a complete disaster. Shipping horses all the way to England wasn’t exactly easy. Horses died in rail road cars, on the docks, on the ships. Adding insult to injury, the bank where the Cameron’s kept their money failed. Evelyn contacted the cousin in charge of her trust fund to request money…her money. Much to her dismay, the gentleman said no.
Plan B. Evelyn started taking in wealthy borders…who made more work for her and often didn’t pay their bills. Even better, Ewen couldn’t step into help, due to poor health. Broke, dispirited, sickly, he had had enough of the Land of Opportunity and suggested they head home.
Evelyn wouldn’t do it. The wide open spaces and seas of grass still held her heart.
So she tried farming. She grew vegetables, harvested them, and carried them all over the range, selling them to everyone from chuck wagon cooks to housewives to cowboys. Again, without any help from Ewen. Her days were long, often lonely, always exhausting. Still, she didn’t want to leave Montana.
One day, a border offered to teach her photography. With the first click of the lens, Evelyn knew she had found her purpose in life. After so much trial and error, it seemed the missteps had been leading her to the wonderful world of Kodak. And in the years to come, sometimes this new passion would even pay the bills!
With natural skill, she photographed friends, families and wildlife. She wrote articles for magazines and submitted them with her photos. She took publicity shots for the rail roads. From 1894 to 1928, Evelyn snapped thousands of pictures and chronicled life in Montana. She also covered with extraordinary honesty the contributions of women on the rugged ranches.
When Evelyn died in 1928, her worldly goods were stored at a friend’s home, tucked away in the basement. Thankfully, a writer, Donna Lucey, discovered the stash in 1978 and brought Evelyn back to life with her book Photographing Montana, 1894–1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron.
Trepidatious about the move to Montana, Evelyn once wrote in her diary, “I wish I would lead a life worthy to look back upon. I am far out of the path now.”
No, she was just taking the long way to it…