Here’s the story of the first two days of Julian and my road trip to Montana. We left Redmond at 5:45am, heading east on I-90. At Ritzville we headed south to see Palouse Falls, the state falls of Washington.
In the middle of golden wheat on rolling hills sits this striking falls. We didn’t have time to climb down, fortunately for me who doesn’t like heights. But took lots of pictures.
We took a brief pit stop in Wallace, ID. I told Julian how Jenny and I had stopped here when we were on our way to seminary in Chicago in 1992 and taken a picture of Jenny standing next to the Wallace sign, her last name being Wallace before she married me.
After that we got down to business focusing on the matter at hand: the filming of the documentary of Fanny Y. Cory.
I asked Julian, “what’s the basic message of her life? Why would anyone care about her story?”
We talked for a long time after that about Fanny’s story. What makes her story worth telling? Is it the poverty and hardships she overcame to become on the leading illustrators in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century? Is it how this diminutive girl (she was only 5 feet 1 inch tall) in her late teens and early twenties broke into the man’s world of illustration with determination and grace? Or is it her fierce love for and loyalty to her family, seen in her care for her sister Agnes among many other things? Is it about how she spent over fifty years in Montana fishing, hunting, riding horseback, raising a family, running an 1,800 acre ranch with her husband, and doing her illustrating and cartoon work, and eventually being named Montana Mother of the Year in 1951? Is it her two wildly successful careers in illustration, first as an illustrator of magazines and books, then her second as a cartoonist? Is it her personality: her wit, her courage, her determination, how she was both regal but down to earth. Is it how she encouraged are and creativity in her family members by reading the classics to them, encouraging them to write poems, and the “grunt and groan club” whose members were encouraged to paint a painting every day.
Julian and I included it was all of these, and that perhaps the best way to capture all of this, and more, is to simply say her story is worth telling.
When we came into the Helena we took some time to capture the beauty of the scene.
We set up our campsite, and had a quick dinner.
We wanted to catch the sunset on the lake, and especially wanted to film the moon over the waters of Canyon Ferry.
We found a great overlook, and waited for the sun to set. We were able to capture the magic of the moonlight dancing like fairy wings on the water.
The next day I rose early and did some scouting work, and photographed the sun rising on the lake. After breakfast, Julian and I went off in search of St. Joseph’s church.
There is a fun story associated with Fanny Y. Cory and this church. In 1904 Fanny eloped with cowboy Fred Cooney. They came to St. Joseph’s church and asked the priest to marry them. The priest said that Fanny, who was an Episcopalian needed to convert to Catholicism. She refused. So he said he couldn’t marry them. Fanny then asked him, “Well Father, do you want us to live in sin?” So the priest agreed to marry them.
When the new Dam was completed in 1953, and the waters of Lake Sewell rose, St. Joseph’s church was one of the buildings that was moved out of the way of the rising waters. It is now on the national register of historic places.
After shooting footage of the church, the big task of the day began: tracking down Fanny’s art studio. It too, like the church, had been raised to avoid the lake, along with the bunkhouse and the windmill that had been near the farmhouse at the Cooney Ranch.
We drove my Honda Fit down dusty roads, and even went off road, but to no avail. We knew we were in the general area, but just couldn’t find it. We knocked on people’s doors. Finally a couple were able to help us. When Julian showed them the photo of the studio and windmill, they recognized it. They pointed it out to us from their house, on a distant hill.
So Julian and I parked our car at Hellsgate Campground, and hiked to it.
How awesome it was to spot it int the distance when we reached the top of one hill.
It was like walking back into history. Though Fanny Y. Cory, her family called her “Meetsy” did most of her work in the farmhouse so she could be closer to the family, she did work out of the studio. I imagined her working there on her Cartoon strip “Sonnysayings” which was run nationally daily for 30 years, imagined her looking up from her work at Lake Sewell, imagined those happy days on the ranch from so long before.
After taking lots of footage, Julian and I hoofed back to the campsite. We were so hot we took at dip in the Lake, now called Canyon Ferry Lake.
Then in the evening, with the shadows lengthening, and the soft colors of the evening coming on, we visited Meetsy’s grave at Resurrection cemetery of the Catholic Church in Helena.
She lies next to her beloved husband Fred Coonie, who was known to his family.
And we talked about how Julian’s middle name Cory was after her, and what lessons we should learn from her life.
Monday, we have two interviews that will be the third and last installment of “Following Fanny.”