Snows of 95 winters have passed over the gravesite, topped only by grass in Laramie’s Greenhill Cemetery.
There is no marker. If not for a memorial fountain greeting those treading onto and off the University of Wyoming campus, no one would know of 23-year-old Lowell O’Bryan, who died in 1922 when Prexy’s Pasture really was a pasture and remnants of real cowboys were visible but fading into the Old West.
O’Bryan’s tale winds its way through cross-country travels with his family in covered wagons, his enrollment and accomplishments in the college, and to a memorial fountain dedicated in his honor in 1927, reconditioned and rededicated this past fall.
He died trying to prevent other students from injury.
Years of Laramie sun and weather had timeworn the fountain and in 2015, archivist Leslie Waggener and Rick Ewig of the American Heritage Center asked their First-Year Seminar class members if they were interested in finding money to repair the fountain. More than $1,500 was raised and thanks to the efforts of UW’s facilities engineering project manager Charles Jahner, the monument was repaired. A ceremony last September rededicated the memorial that divides the sidewalk leading west to 9th Street from Old Main. Members of O’Bryan’s family attended.
Prior to the rededication, Waggener wanted to show O’Bryan family members as much as possible about his history in Laramie. She learned he was buried in Greenhill Cemetery adjacent to the campus.
“I thought I should check that out before the family got here so I could show them where he is buried,” she recalls.
She and her husband, Robert, could not find the grave in the specified section. A cemetery worker showed them.
“Come to find out it is an unmarked grave,” says Waggener. “I thought, ‘Wow. There is a monument to him on campus but no monument for his gravesite. Just grass.’”
Lots of Covered Wagon Time
O’Bryan may have had more prairie miles in the West by the time he enrolled at UW than most of his peers. Born in Santa Rosa, California, September 7, 1899, to Sada and Leon O’Bryan, he and Douglas, his younger bother by two years, and family traveled to South Dakota in two covered wagons – one with household goods and the other carrying books, says Kate Ferry, the lone surviving daughter of Douglas and niece to Lowell. She attended the memorial rededication ceremony.
Sada was a graduate of California Polytechnic State University, keen on education. For reasons unknown, the family traveled in wagons BACK to California, where the boys went to school for one year then traveled BACK to South Dakota. The family moved from Butte, South Dakota, to Laramie in 1920 or 1921, says Ferry.
“Lowell and Douglas were on horses their entire lives,” she says.
Lowell only wanted to cowboy, but Sada insisted he pursue a higher education.
O’Bryan seemed to flourish. In 1921, the agriculture club selected O’Bryan as vice president. The yearbook carries a photo of the group.
The January 4, 1922, Laramie Republican reported O’Bryan had the county agent near Fort Collins collect 10 dairy cows and bring them to Laramie where O’Bryan began operating a dairy in connection to his course work. Class members built a barn, and the feeding programs were used as a basis for the course in feeding. The Rock Springs Rocket on May 19 wrote the students had developed a milk route for deliveries throughout Laramie.
The January 14 edition of the Laramie paper then carried another story of O’Bryan building a poultry house, buying 100 hens, and was trying out feeding rations. The amount and type of feeds were used again for course work.
Died Trying to Prevent Student Injuries
Then, a new UW president arrived October 1922.
Arthur Griswold Crane left the president position at a college in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. The following is from information compiled by UW history Professor Phil Roberts and published in WyoHistory.org about O’Bryan and the celebration.
Roberts relates a group of students decided to greet the new president in Western style. The students, with the help of faculty advisers with familiar last names – Samuel Knight and John Corbett – planned to ambush the new president. They would dress as cowboys and meet the president’s automobile as it made its way down Telephone Canyon (now Interstate 80) onto the Laramie Plains.
Ferry told those at the dedication ceremony Lowell had put horses out on Prexy’s Pasture that morning. “He had to get up early and get them off so he would not be fined,” she relates.
Nine masked men on horses and joined by 50 more cowboys dressed in Western attire ordered what must have been a surprised Crane out of the car and into a stagecoach where he was joined by (another familiar last name) outgoing UW President Aven Nelson and board of trustees chairman W.C. Deming. Crane’s family continued on to Laramie in the car.
Roberts relates Crane did not seem to enjoy the welcome. Photographs show him neither smiling nor waving. They moved from stagecoach to car on the east edge of Laramie and proceeded to the grandstand at the fairgrounds, about where Washington Park is now. After a ceremony, in which two cowboys rode bucking horses, the crowd moved to the campus.
O’Bryan was not among them.
He had been riding out the horses earlier that morning – making them buck until they stopped. One broke toward a fence, and O’Bryan, fearing it might break through and injure a group of students, attempted to dismount, the saddle slipped under the horse, and O’Bryan was pummeled by hooves.
The junior agriculture student was dragged for at least 30 feet and sustained severe head trauma. He had lain for eight days in the house in which he had been living, owned by Dr. Willard Robinson. He was attended to by not only Robinson but also another doctor, Dr. E.M. Turner, several nurses, and other doctors in consultation, according to reports at the time by the student newspaper.
The young man never regained consciousness and died eight days later Tuesday, October 10, 1922. A company of ROTC cadets escorted the body to the cemetery and fired three volleys of shots.
As a medical aside, Crane would later write the “History of Physical Reconstruction”, an official medical history.
Waggener relates what happened then. Students and faculty members raised money in 1926 to build the monument, a fountain fed by an artesian spring and at the site of the current Biological Sciences Building. The fountain was moved in the 1960s when the Biological Sciences Building was constructed and put in storage until 1994, when it was moved to its current location west of Old Main.
The fountain memorial had become weathered and in need of refreshing, leading to the First Year Seminar class efforts. Most of the renovation funds were raised through a GoFundMe site, says Waggener.
Even several weeks after the dedication, O’Bryan’s gravesite still bothered Waggener.
“Me being me, I thought, ‘How much does it cost to place a monument, and is that something we ought to raise money for so there is a marker for him at the cemetery?’” she asked. “I would love if we had a collaborator for that.”