By Eliza Browning
Lisa Hendrickson (ΦBK, DePauw University) first heard of Julia Bennett from her brother’s friend Sherry Pepper. Pepper’s grandmother Julia, a Montana native, was the first woman in the state to own and operate a dude ranch and a big-game hunter whom friends described as “a clever shot with both rifle and shotgun,” Hendrickson reports. She flouted gender roles to build guest ranches in Montana and Arizona in the 1930s that attracted world-renowned entertainers and artists. The story sparked Hendrickson’s imagination and would become Burning the Breeze: Three Generations of Women in the American West (University of Nebraska Press, 2021). Hendrickson begins by tracing the story of Bennett’s widowed grandmother and her daughter as they set out from Missouri during the Civil War on a ten-month journey in a covered wagon. All three women displayed tremendous resilience, independence, and courage as they forged a new life in the Montana Territory.
Although Hendrickson is an experienced corporate and nonprofit writer who formerly co-wrote Kiritsis and Me: 63 Hours at Gunpoint (M.T. Publishing, 2017) with Dick Hall, Burning the Breeze is her first independent book project. To conduct historical research, Hendrickson relied on excerpts from diaries, letters, scrapbooks, guest books, and family photos as well as public archives such as newspapers, courthouse records, and the Montana Historical Society. Hendrickson has always been fascinated by true stories, and her background as a journalist “helped immensely,” she explained, in enabling her to “dig deep.” “I wanted the book to have the ‘feel’ of fiction although it is non-fiction,” she said, adding “I have always admired the author Erik Larson and his ability to craft compelling works of narrative nonfiction from historical events.” She was subsequently inspired to enroll in the MFA program at Butler University, where she now studies fiction writing.
“Western history is so focused on stories about men, and women never really get their due,” Hendrickson said. Through her writing, she aims to put adventurous historical women back in the spotlight. Burning the Breeze documents the hazardous journey widowed Lizzie Martin and her seven-year-old daughter Luly took from war-torn Missouri in 1863 to forge a new life in Montana. Lizzie worked as a seamstress to pay off her late husband’s debts, and Luly later married Benjamin “Doc” Bembrick, a Montana pioneer, rancher, and big game hunter. Together, they managed a ranch and had a daughter, Julia, whom Doc taught to ride, shoot, and hunt. As an adult, Julia traveled to New York City in 1931 to persuade wealthy easterners to spend summers at her ranch and, over the course of her life, encountered celebrities including Charlie Russell, Myrna Loy, Edgar Bergen, and George Westinghouse III. She borrowed money to establish the Diamond J guest ranch near Bozeman and in 1936 founded the Diamond W ranch in Tucson. Hendrickson adds that she hopes men as well as women will be drawn to the book to learn about the legacy of the hard-working and independent women who helped found the American West.
Hendrickson considers herself a lifelong learner, which stems from participating in Phi Beta Kappa at DePauw University. After college, she was awarded a Rotary Scholarship for graduate studies at the University of Paris IV (Sorbonne) and the Institut de Touraine in France. She has subsequently worked as a communications director, media relations professional, journalist, editor, and writer. She has also served on the board of Phi Beta Kappa’s Alpha Association of Indiana. She credits her membership in Phi Beta Kappa with “introducing her to fascinating people and ideas,” she said, cultivating a sustained interest in intellectual history and opening herself up to exploring new opportunities.
Eliza Browning is a master’s student at the University of Oxford studying modern and contemporary literature. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in May 2022 from Wheaton College, where she was inducted in November 2021. Wheaton College is home to the Kappa of Massachusetts chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.