LARAMIE — A few decades ago, travelers passing through Laramie used to stop at the University of Wyoming Experimental Stock Farm and ask around, wondering about the history of the large stone building sitting right by the interstate.
Elnora Frye, who lived at the stock farm, knew the grounds used to be the Wyoming Territorial Prison before they were a farm. She and her husband even lived in the warden’s house. But she didn’t know much else.
“They had stalls for cattle in there. It didn’t look like a prison inside at all, so nobody knew the story of it,” she said.
Frye lived at the farm starting in 1960 and had plans to write a book about its history. Curiosity about its former life as a prison inspired her to research that era of Laramie’s past as well.
Frye’s research eventually turned into a book, “Atlas of Wyoming Outlaws at the Territorial Penitentiary,” as well as a deep knowledge of the area’s history that she willingly shares with other historians even as her research continues.
“I consider her a very thorough historian. It sticks in her head. She either knows things right off the bat or is more than willing to go and look things up for you,” Carly-Ann Anderson, who works for Alliance for Historic Wyoming, said.
Frye grew up on a ranch in Goshen County and moved with her husband, Neil, to Laramie in 1959.
Neil Frye was studying animal production and a year later they moved to the UW stock farm where he worked as a beef herdsman.
UW had acquired the site and turned it into a farm when the prison closed in 1903.
A dozen families lived on the farm, along with students. The women formed a club and started gathering documents and pictures and conducting interviews about the farm’s history.
“There came a time when some old timers wanted the history of the stock farm written up,” Frye said.
Frye decided to back up and start learning about the history of the prison, too.
After exhausting local resources, she read through the federal records.
The prison was built by the Department of the Interior and run by the Department of Justice.
But federal records didn’t tell her much about the prisoners themselves. To find out the juicy details, she turned to Laramie’s newspapers — first the Laramie Daily and Weekly Sentinel and then the Laramie Boomerang.
In the early 1980s, she would finish work for the Albany County School District lunchroom program and head over to the Albany County Public Library to read old newspapers. First, she looked up articles by topic, but she kept coming up with more questions. She decided to start from the beginning, going as far back as the prison’s construction.
“I started with the very first issue of the Laramie Sentinel, in May of 1870,” she said.
Frye kept a notebook with her, where she transcribed all the articles she read.
“I had one year of college, but I knew that if I was going to quote anything, I’d better have it word-for-word,” she said.
After transcribing a decade’s worth of the Laramie Sentinel, she moved onto the Laramie Daily Boomerang, transcribing almost 20,000 pages from 1890-1903.
“When you start doing that, you find so many other interesting stories,” she said.
“I didn’t have the patience to soak in his humor. I just wanted facts,” she said.
In 1903, the prison’s last prisoner was sent to the Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins, and Tom Horn was hanged for murder — the last legal hanging in Cheyenne.
The stock farm closed in 1989, Frye’s book was published in 1990, and the historic site opened in 1991.
Trey Sherwood, executive director of Laramie Main Street and a former historian at the prison historic site, called Frye “probably the most thorough researcher I’ve ever met.”
When Frye learned that Sherwood was researching May Preston Slosson, the first female chaplain at the prison, she volunteered to go through her records to see what she could find.
“She brought me two three-inch binders of articles,” Sherwood said. “I know I’m not the only one she has done that for. When she hears of someone being interested in Laramie history, she’s so willing to share all of that research.”
Anderson recently had an interest in Laramie’s West Side neighborhood, which sits adjacent to prison lands.
“She was kind enough to offer me two huge binders of newspaper transcripts,” Anderson said. “Just hours’ worth of research, and she just offered these up for free. It was amazing,” she said.
Frye has answered questions many times for people wondering about their ancestors, and she now encourages everyone to write their story down for future generations.
Research methods have advanced since Frye started her work, and Wyoming’s newspapers from 1849-1922 are now available online at a website called the Wyoming Newspaper Project (wyonewspapers.org).
But Frye said there’s no substitute for digging through hard copies.
“I sure don’t depend on it,” she said of online sources.
These days, Frye is researching the history of Cowboy Joe, the UW mascot pony. The first Cowboy Joe was donated to UW in 1950, and he lived at the stock farm.
“My husband and his hired men took care of the hooves of the horse,” she said.
She’s found a few pictures of the original pony, but she’s hoping to compile a list of the students who worked with him.
“We don’t have a very good list of kids’ names that were Cowboy Joe handlers,” she said.