From the Desk of Lisa Hendrickson: The Joys of Going Down the Rabbit Hole

Lisa Hendrickson is the owner of Lisa Hendrickson Communications and a former corporate and nonprofit public relations director. She has written or edited five books, including Indiana at 200: A Celebration of the Hoosier State and Kiritsis and Me: Enduring 63 Hours at Gunpoint. Her new book, Burning the Breeze (Bison Books, 2021), is now available.

Never stick to your initial plan. That’s the most important thing I learned while writing Burning the Breeze: Three Generations of Women in the American West. I know—in most professional circles, a good plan is considered a must. But as I discovered when I set out to write a biography of the first woman in Montana to independently own and operate a dude ranch, I had no idea of the treasures I would find when I started going down the rabbit hole.

I first “met” a remarkable woman named Julia Bennett in 2011 during a phone conversation with my brother, who was living in Bozeman, Montana. “My friend Sherry wants someone to write about her grandmother,” he said. He added that Sherry’s grandmother, a woman named Julia Bennett, had started her dude ranch, the Diamond J, in the middle of the Great Depression. I was intrigued. Although my brother didn’t know it, I was on the lookout for a new writing project. He put me in touch with Sherry, who told me that Julia Bennett overcame countless obstacles to build the Diamond J into a summer haven that attracted world-renowned artists and entertainers. Needing year-round income, six years later she opened the Diamond W in Tucson, Arizona, to cater to guests in the winter months.

I was interested in telling Julia Bennett’s story, but I didn’t know if there was enough information available to fill a book—or even a magazine article. But I uncovered more than I ever imagined once I started digging.

In September 2011, my husband and I visited the Diamond J, which still stands in an idyllic mountain valley. It’s now owned by another family, who purchased it after Julia sold it in the 1950s. But the cabins and lodge built by Julia and her crew in 1930 are still in use today, along with much of the china and furniture she carefully selected nearly one hundred years ago.

I traveled to Arizona to spend a fruitful week interviewing Sherry, who is the guardian of family photo albums dating to the 1860s, scrapbooks, and ranch guestbooks. I set to work deciphering Julia’s written reminiscences, which, though fascinating, didn’t contain detailed information about dates, people, or important events in her life that would enable me to generate a full portrait. I knew Julia had grown up in Montana’s Jefferson valley in the late 1800s, but I was having a hard time pinning down the exact location of the family ranch and other landmarks that now are gone.

Meanwhile, a Montana history magazine published a short magazine article I’d written about Julia based on the information I’d gathered. One day I found an email in my inbox from a man who had read the article. It turned out that he was a distant relation to Julia, and he’d also been raised in the Jefferson valley. He generously offered to take me on a tour to see the locations I’d been struggling to find.

Then, while researching the life of Julia’s grandmother Lizzie Nave Martin, a young widow living in Civil War-torn Missouri, I found her husband’s handwritten will on ancestry.com, sourced from Livingston County court records. On a whim, I contacted the courthouse. Surely there wouldn’t be additional records about the family from the 1860s, I thought, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. Bingo! A very helpful clerk found dozens of original documents that spelled out the details of every debt the family owed after David Martin’s death—debts that Lizzie was required by law to repay. 

So, soon after her husband’s death, Lizzie Martin and her seven-year-old daughter set out on a ten-month wagon train journey to the Montana Territory, where Lizzie hoped to earn money as a seamstress. They had no idea of the trials they soon would face over the next several years. I didn’t either. But on a visit to the Montana Historical Society, I discovered excerpts from Lizzie’s 1867 diary. They detailed her daily life in San Francisco, where she had spent a year, and a month-long steamer and stagecoach journey that she and her daughter took from San Francisco back to the Montana Territory.

I also made a few visits to the small Broadwater County Museum in Townsend, Montana, where curator Linda Huth spent generous amounts of her time pulling folders full of detailed information about stagecoach routes, local ranches, and long-gone train lines. She even had the bug-eaten original account book of J. Dougherty, a local merchant from whom Julia’s mother bought supplies and her father bought whiskey (a fair amount of it, I noted). I also uncovered a newspaper article detailing Julia’s mother’s memories of her first wagon train trip across the Plains. It was then that I realized that this would be not just the story of one remarkable woman but three generations of them.

It took me ten years to finish the book, and (in retrospect) I’m glad it took that long. When I started my research, many of the newspapers and records I needed weren’t available online—and I didn’t even know if some of them existed. Early on, I had to travel to Montana and Arizona, scroll through countless rolls of microfiche, and visit many courthouses, and I still didn’t come up with much. But as the years went by, nearly every newspaper became available online. Now I could search by names, dates, locations—all from my Indianapolis home. I unearthed countless gems that brought these women to life and provided essential historical context.

The first thing most people who have read Burning the Breeze say to me is, “I don’t know how these women did it. Their lives were so challenging.” And their lives deserve to be studied and celebrated. Thank goodness for that rabbit hole.

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