“Something’s certainly not right,” remarked a young Rodney Guthrie to his companion as they headed home from the campus on that June afternoon in 1930. The rider of the bicycle had fallen and was sitting next to it. Then he cautiously stood and walked away with the bike. Three days later he was dead.
The cyclist was 75-year-old John H. Symons (1855-1930), long-time attorney in Laramie. He had left the office he’d built at 204 Ivinson Ave. dressed, as always, in his black suit and hat, mounted his bicycle and was going to his home at 716 Grand Ave. It was never clear whether the fall to the ground was the cause of his death.
Symons was one of Laramie’s earliest residents, arriving as a teen-ager with his family, in two wagons from Dale City the week before the first train arrived in Laramie on in May of 1868. The family had followed the building of the railroad westward and operated a rooming house for the construction workers.
Finding Laramie a congenial place (in spite of its early lawlessness), the family decided to put down roots. His stepfather was Jeremiah Boies who for thirty years was variously an undertaker, furniture and wallpaper merchant, oils and paints dealer, and occasionally county coroner. At the time of his death in 1900, Boies was the oldest man in Wyoming at age 96.
Son of Martha Boies
His mother, Martha Symons Boies, ran a millinery shop for a number of years. Jane Ivinson mentions in writing about the earliest days of Laramie that “Martha Boies had gone east to buy millinery stock.” She might have said that to indicate Laramie was to become a place where women could feel at home, in contrast to the rough edges of those early days.
In March of 1870, Martha Boies was selected at the first woman bailiff—Laramie was the first location in the world to seat women on a jury and a bailiff was needed to guard their hotel room doors. Thus she is one of the women profiled in the Wyoming Women’s History House on 2nd St., a memorial to women who pioneered in various ways in early Wyoming.
Young John Symons was educated back in Platteville, Wisconsin, the town where he was born and where relatives still resided. He spent winters in Platteville and summers in Laramie at first working as a bookkeeper in the tin shop of Mr. LeRoy and then as a printer’s apprentice for the newspaper. He graduated from the First National Normal School in Platteville. He was interested in law as a career, and headed back to Laramie where he was apprenticed to Laramie attorney Col. Stephen W. Downey.
While in Wisconsin, he had met Margaret Emily Keegan, the daughter of a Methodist minister. They were married in Platteville in 1880, returned to Laramie, and within a decade were the parents of four children.
Active civic life
Symons’ career in Laramie was multi-faceted. He was admitted to the Wyoming State Bar in 1881 and purchased Walter Sinclair’s insurance business in 1883. His activities attracted the attention of the Union Pacific Railroad and in that same year he was appointed as their land agent. Soon he was overwhelmed and hired an assistant to run the insurance part of the business.
In 1886, he ran for the non-voting position of Wyoming Territorial delegate to the US Congress, but was not successful. Though he did not run for elected office again, he was appointed to serve as the City Clerk of Laramie for a time, and sat on the boards of the Laramie Electric, Gas, Light & Fuel Company and the Albany Mutual Building Association. All the while he was a vocal advocate for the best interests of the City of Laramie and its citizens.
By 1895, Symons had been appointed a US Commissioner in the Eighth Judicial District for Wyoming. In the over 20 years he held that title, he passed judgment on a great many Federal matters ranging from proving up homestead claims to counterfeit silver dollars to hearing the case of a postmaster who had embezzled funds from the Laramie Post Office.
Becomes a builder
Along the way, Symons decided to become a property owner, so he set about buying and building portions of the Laramie business district. His real estate office was erected at 204 Thornburgh Ave. (now Ivinson) in 1886. In its exuberance, the Laramie Daily Boomerang described it as one of the finest buildings in the West for its size and wrote thus: “Finished with imported tile floors, plate glass windows and cut stone trimmings, its exterior will attract the eye and gratify the taste of the most critical observer. The interior finish of whitewood in the Eastlake style, handsome furniture and Brussels carpets will make the new office a dream of Oriental magnificence. It will cost not less than $12,000.”
In the first decade of the 1900s, he acquired most of the properties on the west side of 2nd St., between Thornburgh (now Ivinson Ave.) and Grand Ave., and bought the Collins Block at the southwest corner of 2nd and Garfield St. In 1901 he built the still-standing, though much remodeled building now occupied by Artisan’s Gallery at 215 S. 2nd St. as the home of the Laramie Post Office. It served in that capacity for about five years until the new Post Office was opened in the fall of 1906. That new Post Office was demolished in the early 1960s for the First Interstate Bank.
The Symons residence at 716 Grand Ave. was built in the 1870s by Luther Fillmore, construction superintendent for the building of the Union Pacific Railroad through this section of Wyoming. He built it for his newly married daughter, Mrs. Matt Dawson. In the ensuing 30 years it had several owners. Symons acquired and remodeled it in 1903 and the family lived in it for the next 30 years. Today the Albany County Public Library is located there.
3rd Car in Laramie
Symons was known for his frugality in his daily life, but did have his pleasures. In 1902, after sending the family to the Sodergreen guest ranch on the Big Laramie, he went to Denver and purchased a National “Park Trap” electric car. It was only the third automobile in the city, and was reported to have cost “four figures.”
Later in his life, he owned a 1924 Franklin (likely purchased from Elmer Lovejoy), which was kept on blocks all week and used only to take the family to Sunday church. After his death, his sons settled his estate. They found that his account books were kept in a long-forgotten style of shorthand. Several months were spent deciphering the transactions of many years of business life.
And what of the young man who saw him tumble from his bicycle? Rodney M. Guthrie completed law school and went on to become a prominent attorney in northeastern Wyoming. In 1972, he was appointed to the Wyoming Supreme Court, the first Wyoming-born person to hold that position.
By Otis Halverson
Caption: John H. Symons—photo courtesy of Otis Halverson