Meeting Col. Torrey

Some of us think that a good journalist has to have an interest in history.  Gene Fowler, who was a roaring-20s newspaperman in Denver and in New York, once wrote, “News is history shot on the wing.”   And journalists often are described as the people who write the first draft of history.  We need to know history to give our stories context, to explain the value of the things we write about, to help our consumers understand why things happen as they do, why we are what we are. 

That’s why this correspondent  is off for a meeting with Col. Jay Torrey. 

I met Jay L. Torrey a few years ago in a newspaper article.  An old one. 

The problem with researching historical events is that the researcher sometimes runs across somebody who begins to demand the researcher pay more attention to them. “Hey,” they say, “I was an interesting person.  I was important.  Now that you’re here, let me tell you my story.”   

Jay Torrey was a lawyer and entrepreneur in West Plains when we first met.  Before that, he was in Wyoming and he was kind of a big deal there.   This week, I’m going to Laramie, Wyoming to get to know him better. 

When the Missouri Capitol burned on February 5, 1911, Jay L. Torrey had an idea.  Now that the Capitol had been destroyed, there’s no reason for the seat of government to stay in Jefferson City.  I’m going to try to get it moved to my farm south of West Plains. 

He was a friend of Governor Herbert Hadley, who had no desire whatever to see the seat of government shifted out of Jefferson City, the home of state government since 1826. Their friendship would be tested by Torrey’s ambition in the almost six months before voters decided on a bond issue for a new building.

Although several cities offered space for government to meet after the fire—University City even came up with a drawing showing how a new Capitol would look there–Torrey’s idea is the only one that had any legs.

He campaign against long odds all during the summer, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of acres for a new city at his Fruitville Farm, and praising the location for its beauty and healthy living conditions.  

The legislature had given him a window of hope by approving two proposals. One was a $3.5 million bond issue for a new Capitol in Jefferson City.  If that proposal did not get a two-thirds vote on August 1, a second bond issue proposal would go to voters with a five million dollar price tag and no location designated.  If Torrey could convince one-third of the voters to oppose the first bond issue, he might have a shot at making his new town near West Plains the new seat of government.  

Torrey was born in Pittsfield, Illinois but grew up in Louisiana, Missouri and in St. Louis.  He got his law degree from Washington University and went into private bankruptcy law practice.  His bankruptcy plan was adopted by Congress and was a national model for many years. He also was active in establishing a system of state appellate courts. 

He went west when his older brother, Robert,  a retired Army officer, invited him to manage a big cattle operation near Thermopolis, Wyoming.  He got a couple of patents for improvements to saddle blankets and branding irons while working with the cattle and got involved in Wyoming Republican politics.   He was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives and in 1895 was elected the third Wyoming Speaker of the House. 

When the Spanish-American War began, Torrey became nationally recognized by advocating formation of a regiment of cowboys  and stockmen that became known as “Rough Riders.”  He became the unit’s Colonel.  His unit, as was the case with most of our Missouri units, never made it to Cuba. 

He returned to Missouri as a wealthy man in 1905 and put together a 10,000 acre place he called “Fruitville Farm.”  He laid out a village he hoped to call Torreytown.   The town never amounted to anything and the strong voter support of the Capitol bond issue ended his dream of a major development. 

Torrey remained an influential citizen of West Plains and continued to be a strong proponent of the Ozarks for the rest of his life.   

He launched a late campaign for the Republican nomination to the U. S. Senate in 1918 but lost the primary election to Selden Spencer.

Torrey was a bachelor for all but the last few months of his life.  He married a doctor’s widow, Frances Reiley, in October, 1920 and died the following December 4th. He was 68.  He’s buried in Pittsfield.

The Wyoming Historical Society has a lot of Torrey stuff, especially a scrapbook with a lot of Missouri material in it. 

Historians understand that ghosts live in file boxes and scrapbooks.  Their thoughts and the thoughts of others about them often bring them back to life because of the handwritten letters, the photos, the journals and, yes, the scrapbooks in places like historical societies in Laramie and in Columbia or in state archives like those in Jefferson City. 

History is an adventure.  That’s why I’m off to Wyoming to meet the Colonel and listen to the stories he’ll tell.

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