Preserving Family History

Jan 13, 2022 by Tempe Javitz


Welcome to my blog.  Thanks for coming on this journey with me.  In this new world of publishing
when you have a book to promote a website and a blog can be helpful.  My book, regarding my grandmother
Jessamine Spear Johnson’s amazing photography of Montana & Wyoming from the 1910s to the 1950s,
is coming out in late 2022, thanks to the South Dakota Historical Society Press.  For more fun and some photos
check out my website at  If you would rather not receive additional blogs, just email
me at .

Preserving Family History:  Do you have an attic full of family stuff or maybe just a few boxes?  Do
they sit there and haunt you?  Do they yell at you as you walk by, “Hey, didn’t you say you would conserve
our family archive?”  What family member talked you into this, so they wouldn’t have to do it?  Sound
familiar?  However, it can be an adventure.  For me it led to writing articles and a book.

How did this escapade start?  You may not know this but I grew up on a for-real Montana cattle ranch
not far from the Wyoming line and adjacent to the Crow and Cheyenne reservations.  Even though Dad
didn’t tolerate our playing with fire, it seems like SMOKE SIGNALS is the right title for my blog.  
Blogging is today’s method of sending stories long distance, both written and visual.  I will be using my
grandmother Jessamine’s wonderful photos as enhancements.

I sat astride a tall ornery pinto by the age of four “riding the drag”, urging the cattle towards the branding
corral in a perpetual cloud of dust. Even though this cowgirl never wished to do that as an adult, life has a
way of calling you back to your beginnings.  It sure did to me.  

             My dad Torrey started young too.

I became interested in exploring my grandmother Jessamine’s life when her photographic archive
was stored in my parent’s basement after her death in 1978.  There were thirty-three boxes of photos! 
I was married and living in California, so I only had short vacations to look at pictures.  A few years
later, my Aunt Annabelle handed me Jessamine’s twenty-three surviving diaries.  However, real life
kept intervening.  I had started my own business and had kids.  You know, the rat race of adult life! 
I kept putting aside the project to delve into my grandmother’s story.  It’s so easy to say, I’ll do this later.
Well, later was August 2007!

After retiring it was time to put up or shut up.  I returned from my summer vacation in Montana with
two large boxes of photos.  I had no idea what this journey would require or even where to start.  What
did I know about preserving old letters, diaries, and photographs?  Needless to say, helpful librarians,
books on archiving, and dozens of articles on the internet saved my life. 

Helpful Hints:  If this kind of stuff is stopping you from your own journey, let me share some experiences.

Start Small:  I knew I needed a good scanner to handle photographs, old letters, diaries, and genealogical
paperwork.  Luckily there was a large camera store nearby whose employee quizzed me on the phone about
my project.  I was very concerned as some of the scanners online were $6000!  He laughed and assured me
I wouldn’t need to take out a loan.  Drafting my techy husband for support, we headed to the store with a few
negatives.  Less than an hour later we arrived home with a $500 Epson Photo scanner. With a scanning bed of
9” wide by 12” long, I was set to go.  Nowadays there are many new types and sizes of scanners to choose from,
including printer-scanner combinations.  Have fun discovering what might work best for your project.

Supplies and Storage:  An Ikea set of drawers works great under my computer table, a perfect place for acid
free pens, glassine envelopes for individual negatives, a handheld ball pump air duster to blow dust from prints,
a large tweezer for moving negatives around, and a bag of white cotton gloves.  No, I wasn’t planning on a
attending a high-toned tea party.  The oil on your hands will damage photos and negatives leaving visible fingerprints. 
Who knew?

One Bite at a Time:  The only way I managed to scan all of those boxes of negatives and prints was to do
a bit every day.  Personally, it was a treasure hunt.  Each day uncovered fascinating images.  Childhood photos
of my dad and his siblings were quite entertaining.  Most of my aunts and uncles had crossed the great divide
(as we say in cowboy lingo), but my cousins were excited and charmed by the images I shared.   But it wasn’t
just the pictures.  I also spent each afternoon at the dining room table reading Jessamine’s surviving diaries,
making an outline and noting pertinent quotes.  The more I read, the more I realized I could write her story
and illustrate it with her photographs.

Six and a half years later box 33 was scanned.  Eureka! I am DONE!  I didn’t know that box 34 was lying
in wait. In March of 2017 we emptied my parents ranch home.  I was helping my sister Sandra carry boxes
into her house and packing my suitcase for the airplane when she walked into the guest room with box 34. 
“Look what I found, it must have been in Aunt Ruth’s attic,” she exclaimed.  She had been shifting boxes
in her back storage room and there it lay.  It turns out that box 34 really filled in some information gaps!

The result of this labor of love is a manuscript about my grandmother and her artistry.  My photo book,
Jessamine Spear Johnson, A Photographic Artist of the Changing West, (a working title) has found a
publisher-the South Dakota Historical Society Press.  I will keep you posted as its production progresses.
Cowboys and Indians Magazine are publishing my new article about Jessamine in their Feb/March 2022 issue. 
Check the newsstands.

In the meantime, I will share more stories and photos of the women and men who have impacted the plains
and mountains of SE Montana and NE Wyoming’s cattle country.  It’s a history you will find exciting, stirring
and compelling.  It will be an honor to be your guide!

             Every morning it’s a rodeo in 1922.
               Gerald Milley riding Cloudy, Kirby, MT.