Colonel Jay L. Torrey
By Adus F. Dorsey II
The news that the United States Congress had declared war on Spain came early on the morning of April 25th, 1898 and the word spread about a slowly as the first signs of a flash flood in red rock country. Several weeks earlier there had been whispers of the sinking of the battleship Maine by Spain, but the farmers and ranchers in Southern Utah paid the news little mind as there was fields to prepare and hungry mouths to feed.
Born in Pittsfield, Illinois, J.L. Torrey went to Wyoming to help his elder brother Capt. R. A. Torrey manage his ranch in the Big Horn Basin. In 1894 Torrey was elected to the state legislature representing Fremont County (which at that time included much of the Big Horn Basin). Even though Torrey was a freshman legislator he was swiftly elected to be speaker of the house during a time when hostilities with Spain were beginning to reach a boil. J.L. Torrey was politically well known throughout the west even though he had only served one term in the legislature probably because he was a second cousin to President William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States (1909–1913).
When Congress finally authorized “cowboy units,” three men were assigned to command the volunteer cavalry organizations. Col. Leonard Wood assisted by former undersecretary of the navy Theodore Roosevelt were to take charge of the First Volunteer Cavalry and Torrey was authorized to raise men for the Second Volunteer Cavalry, Melvin Grigsby the South Dakota Attorney General would command the Third. In a dispatch from the Denver Republican, it read “Regiments of Western Sharpshooters and Cowboy Rough Rider wanted.” From that time forward the words “Rough Riders” were tagged to the Cowboy volunteers of 1898.
Of the 842 western recruits under Colonel Torrey’s command, 591 were from Wyoming and the rest were from Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, and Utah. The recruits had to meet Colonel Torrey’s strict requirements, they had to be excellent horsemen, good with a gun, be between 18 and 45 years of age, stand between 5’4” and 5’10” in height and weigh no more than 165 pounds. The exact same requirements that just about every healthy male west of the Missouri River needed just to survive west of the Rockies.
Prior to 1898 the area south of Sand Creek and north of the Fremont River in Wayne County was having an identity crisis, one week it was called Youngstown, the next week it was called Central, then in a feeble attempt to gain more residents it was named Popular, and when everybody went bust it was labeled Poverty Flats, which no one in the area found to be all that funny at the time.
It is highly unlikely that the good Colonel Torrey ever found his way to the place that would eventually bare his name in the year 1898, or would he ever find himself riding in a Torrey 4th of July parade. But, surely because of all of his recruiting efforts the name Torrey was being bantered back and forth in the Poverty Flats Ward Priesthood meetings. And since the good folks in the town needed a name before they could have a Post Office some well read and decisive individual in a meeting had to have made the progressive motion to call the fledgling town Torrey.
Then in May of 1898 with a flurry of hands raised in the air, because the meeting was running late and with an unanimous amen the once area known as Poverty Flats would forever be called Torrey.
With a new southern Utah town now baring his name and on June 13th 1898, Colonel Torrey gathered up his crack outfit of gun toting, horse riding, 5’8”, 165 pound cowboys, with horses, now being dubbed “Torrey’ Rough Riders”, and they boarded a train headed for Jacksonville, Florida. They were going there to meet up with the famous 5’8”, 165-pound, fire breathing Teddy Roosevelt. Railroad lines all along the way were steady with people cheering the passage of the “Rough Riders” going off to war, the air was thick with the smell of leather and excitement high on the east bound train.
On June 26 while the two trains carrying the volunteer cowboy troops and their horses were nearing Tupelo, Mississippi, the first train stopped to take on water. The second train rounded a sharp curve and smashed into the rear car of the parked train, five men were killed and 15 were injured. Both of Colonel Torrey’s feet were injured and he had to shuffle around on crutches for several weeks after the accident.
After days’ of delay, Torrey’s group arrived at the base in Jacksonville at the same time Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba. Within a month the war was over and Wyoming’s Rough Riders were still in Jacksonville having never been ordered to the front.
In Jacksonville, typhoid fever demanded its toll while the disappointed volunteers awaited their discharges. More than 30 men died of the dreadful disease before the wounded and crack unit of western cowboys were finally returned to Fort D. A. Russell and mustered out in October 1898. Most of the cowboys, hunters, miners, ropers and blacksmiths who made up “Torrey’s Rough Riders” finally returned to their hometowns. A year later, in an elaborate ceremony, the victims of the train mishap, none of who were from Wyoming, were re-interred in the Fort Russell cemetery.
During that tumultuous time Theodore Roosevelt was elected vice president and later became President after the death of then President William McKinley, and Col. Jay Torrey returned to his Big Sky Wyoming spread in the Big Horn Basin where he lived until about 1906.
Coincidentally Colonel Torrey amassed considerable wealth from his holdings in Wyoming and in 1906 he packed his bags and went back to Missouri. He acquired the “White Farm” southeast of West Plains in Howell County, Missouri adding to it to create a 10,000-acre tract, which he named Fruitville Farm. Torrey’s most ambitious project was the “ideal” village of Torreytown, which he hoped to establish at Fruitville Farm.
Designed on a European model that J.L. Torrey had once read about in “The Reader Digest,” residents were to be urban farmers living happily together in a central valley surrounded by outlying and well watered orchard farmsteads. Truly interested residents would be required to be inclusive, progressive and display patriotic themes. Interestingly enough, in Torrey, Utah, in 1898, a similar state of mind was just starting to take root.
At his Fruitville farm Colonel Torrey entertained extensively and on a large scale. In 1913 the annual reunion of Spanish-American War Veterans was held there. J.L. Torrey was tireless in his efforts to cultivate American Heritage and local Culture.
References; “Who Rush to Glory” Clifford P. Westermeier, Life and Times of J.L. Torrey, Rainbow Views, A History of Wayne County.