Finding The Mysterious Edgar Fay…Part 3

Charlotta “Lottie” Fay Williams (1873-1945), oldest sister of W. A. Fay

We have all heard a story of a child who has disappeared from a family. If the added information is that the child has been missing several years, the imagined pain of the child and the family is magnified. One wonders immediately how old was the child, what were the circumstances of leaving, and did the child survive? One newspaper account mentioned the youth leaving with “an older companion.” How much older? Male or female? Did the family know this companion? All these questions factor into understanding the circumstances and the outcome of the story.

Thankfully, based upon the current DNA results of living descendants, we are quite sure that Wooster, or W. A., survived the disappearance, because by 1917 he was in Arkadelphia, Arkansas where he married and completed a World War I draft registration card. By then, his name was Edgar Fay, as we described in Part 1 of our series. Now we must examine the circumstances surrounding the disappearance and what the information can tell us about W. A. and his life, and that of his family.

Cynthia Alice York Fay (1855-1945), mother of W. A. Fay

The Fays Press Forward

Older sister Charlotta wrote her 1897 letter from Franklin, Nebraska, desperate to find her younger brother. Clearly, she was very upset about his leaving, and in addition to being fearful about his reported injury, she was hopeful that perhaps he now would be found again. There were only about three years age difference between Charlotta and Edgar, the first and third children in this large family. The Morrison and Cynthia Fay family shared the death of five-year-old daughter/sister Cynthia in 1894, almost immediately followed by the move from the safe comfort of Council Bluffs, Iowa and the proximity and security of grandparents and community to Franklin, Nebraska. Both events were shared family experiences.

Morrison McMillan Fay (1849-1919), father of W. A. Fay

Our recent discovery of Charlotta’s letter to the editor made it necessary to take a road trip to Franklin to find evidence of W. A.’s departure. The trip was a success in providing two pieces of documentation, his joining the church with his younger brother Malcolm in December 1892 and his attendance at the Franklin Academy into the spring of 1893. The rest of the Fay family continued to live in Franklin for a few more years. The older girls graduated from Franklin Academy. Malcolm was enrolled in the academy as late as 1897-1898.

Eleanor emerged following graduation as a professional teacher who continued to work in a variety of settings. Very early in her teaching career Eleanor was employed at Piñon, now Nucla, Colorado, a cooperative community west of Montrose, as their schoolteacher. It is important to note that the commune perspective within the United States at this time in history was a movement influenced by a spirit of cooperation and brotherhood, ideals that appealed to Morrison and Cynthia, and a perspective that arose naturally from their ancestral and religious roots in Massachusetts. Residing on the western slopes of the Colorado Rocky Mountains requires focused and immediate attention to water access, providing for its availability to residents and local farmers. Building water ditches was a major civic topic, and the Piñon commune had a focus upon buying into the cooperative construction of a water supply ditch and to share the resource. It appears that Morrison’s interest in the project and community developed after Eleanor began her teaching assignment there. It does seem that although he bought into the project, he instead moved to Montrose by 1903. Eleanor continued her teaching career by securing jobs in Colorado mining communities over the next few years. She taught in Howard, near Cripple Creek, and Telluride before she began teaching in the schools in Montrose. Eleanor owned the house where her parents and siblings lived in Montrose, even before she worked there full time. When Eleanor worked in different communities, she would return to Montrose for her school breaks.

Oldest sister Charlotta was not quick to move to Colorado. After becoming a teacher, she studied to become a professional photographer. She moved back and forth from Council Bluffs, Iowa where she worked in a studio for awhile and caught the eye of Walter Williams, a Pottawattamie County, Iowa farmer. In preparing to move to Colorado, Charlotta’s parents traded their house for another property and purchased an establishment in the business district in downtown Franklin which they remodeled to become a professional photography studio for Charlotta, Fay Photography. The Fays sold the back of the property, keeping the front for the business. Charlotta and Walter did marry in 1903. By 1906 they moved with their young son to Delta, Colorado, a community just north of Montrose. A history of the Walter Williams family describes one job Charlotta acquired as an express delivery carrier. Express Wagon was a company that hired drivers to collect packages delivered by incoming train to the local depot and deliver along a route to the package recipients. It was an era now hard to imagine in which the gold and silver mines were running heavily on the eastern and western slopes of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and nearby towns were thriving. The train system was the primary mode of transportation among the mines and communities, and Montrose was a crossroads for trains moving east to Gunnison, northwest to Grand Junction, and south to Telluride. Local delivery was by horse and wagon or stagecoach. Even Morrison M. Fay was listed in the 1910 Montrose city directory as working for Express Wagon.

L to R: Ruth, Joyce, Rowena, Eleanor, Charlotta Fay, sisters of W. A. Fay

The siblings of Charlotta and Eleanor who moved to Montrose continued their schooling in the local public schools. Later, as adults, many of them and/or their children mined from Montana to Arizona, moving as jobs became available, but usually staying for awhile after each move. Descendants tell us that the family were expert in horsemanship, and they married into families, such as the Wallis family, that regularly rodeoed and even jockeyed. Justin Brooks and M. M. Fay, Jr. both married Wallis girls who were cousins, Addy May Gertude (1897 – 1962) and Ola Ethel (1892 – 1966), respectively, daughters of brothers James Oliver and Andrew H. Wallis, sons of William Wallis (1848 – 1938) and Mary E. Triplett (1854 – 1920).

Mellie Burns (1890-1973)

Miss Mellie Burns: A Legacy of Adventure

Before we go further, we need to think about the dots we are trying to connect. We know the missing trail of W. A. Fay starts in Franklin, Nebraska where he departed. It ends in Arkadelphia, Clark County, Arkansas in 1917 where he married Miss Mellie Burns.

Mellie was the granddaughter of the missionary and pastor George Washington Burns (1846 – 1932) of Tennessee who came to Logan County, Arkansas, just south of the Arkansas River across from Johnson County, Arkansas, by 1872 at about 25 years of age, bringing his wife and several young sons, including three-year-old James Anderson Burns who would become the father of Mellie. In all Rev. Burns and his wife Mahala Jane Black (1846-1916), would have nine boys. Rev. Burns made excursions into Indian Territory and Texas to minister to the Native Americans.

Mellie’s mother’s side of the family was equally adventurous. Mellie was born in 1890 in Indian Territory at Webbers Falls, also on the Arkansas River, an Old Cherokee settlement where Mellie’s grandparents Lucy Jayne Harles (1853 – 1940) and George W. Craig (1848 – before 1900) were delivered their second child William G. Craig November, 1889, in the same location within a year of Mellie’s birth June, 1890, making infant Mellie an aunt straightaway. Mellie’s Uncle Thomas “Tobe” Henry Harles (1850-1891) was married to Eliza Jane Blackston (1845-1936) who was a member of the Cherokee tribe. Some family stories suggested that Mellie was Cherokee, but the fact seems to be that the family was highly attached to the Cherokee through marriage and association. Martha and David Daniel Harles, parents of Lucy Jayne and Tobe, had been in Indian Territory with Tobe and Eliza. Lucy Jayne and her family had been living in Fort Smith, Arkansas, but traveled to Webbers Falls sometime in the summer due to David Harles’ illness and death August 29, 1889.

After Mellie’s birth, her parents Mary Alice “Etta” Craig and James “Anderson” Burns moved fairly quickly to the relative safety of Clark County, Arkansas where Anderson’s family and his parents Mahala Jane and the Rev. George Washington Burns settled. Meanwhile, maternal grandmother Lucy Jayne, widowed for reasons that now are unclear, and in Oklahoma City by 1900 with her young son George, remained in Oklahoma City until her death in 1940. Lucy Jayne deserves a dedicated blog entry, and later she will get one! For now, know that she was a strong, resourceful, successful woman who maintained her family connections and who very likely, despite her geographic distance from the family, was a major influence upon the family generally and Mellie specifically.

Mellie remained in Arkadelphia and the surrounding area, the oldest child of her parents’ large family. Arkadelphia, a college town by 1886, is in southwest Arkansas, heavily forested in the foothills of the Ouachita (pronounced Wah’ sheh-tah) Mountains and on the south banks of the Ouachita River, a navigable body of water that empties into the Rio Grande, then into the Mississippi. Arkadelphia also is about 30 minutes from Hot Springs, Arkansas, a premiere national destination, known for its healing waters, two competitive horse racing tracks in the early 1900’s, the training camps for national baseball teams and players 1886-1940’s, and a burgeoning location for organized crime. Hot Springs became the United States’ first national park in 1832, so it was well known nationally and highly advertised as a destination by train even before automobiles were widely used.

By all accounts, Mellie was a dutiful daughter who attended school, was an active participant at her Baptist church, and likely helped care for her younger siblings. Arkadelphia had good access to rail service, and there is evidence that travel back and forth to Oklahoma City was accessible. Once cars became available, car travel from Mellie’s home to Hot Springs was not an infrequent occurrence. We have no reason to believe that George Washington Burns did not continue his missionary excursions into Indian Territory, for he was traveling to Texas just prior to his death, but there is no located paper trail giving us details of his travels and missions. Mellie knew of her Indian Territory roots and heard the many stories of her pioneer ancestors and their connections with “Hanging Judge” Issac C. Parker’s marshals, dust-ups with outlaws, and early Arkansas and Oklahoma settlement. Even as a young girl, her family impressed upon Mellie her direct, personal connection to her family’s westward fancies.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Colorado, near Montrose, CO

The Western Fays

Why did the Fays move to Montrose, Colorado? Whose idea was it? Most likely, it was Eleanor who took a job opportunity at Piñon, Colorado, and the rest of the family joined her in a move to nearby Montrose. But is it possible that W. A. Fay, now perhaps known as Ed Fay, reconnected with the family, and they found that he was involved in Colorado ventures, bringing their attention to the opportunities? (Note: From this point, I will refer to W. A., Ed, Edgar, and more rarely “Wooster” alternately as the same person.)

When we search for “Wooster” or “Ed” Fays in Colorado after 1893, there are a few possible young men to choose. Some we can rule out when the men stay in the location beyond the point that we know Edgar was in Arkansas. There also were some criminals named Ed or Edgar Fay, but they were executed, so clearly they are not our guy!

There are some serious candidates, though. One is a miner who was living in Cripple Creek, Colorado 1900 and 1902. He is listed in 1900 as living in Victor in the Cripple Creek District, working at the Vindicator mine and in 1902 living at the Placer Hotel and working at the Independence mine. It is worth a trip to Victor and Cripple Creek to understand the altitude of the location and how challenging a life it would be to have been a miner in that era. Actually, one of the mines is fully operational, although modernized, so clearly not in the way it would have been in the early 1900’s. Cripple Creek is quite close to Howard, where sister Eleanor became principal of the school Fall, 1903, upon leaving Piñon. Close, in Rocky Mountain terms, during the early years of mining, is a relative term, but Howard and Cripple Creek it appear to be on the same or a connected railroad line used for transportation of workers and the mined minerals being exported by rail.

Another Ed Fay appears in Denver, Colorado in 1907 and 1908. Ed Fay appears to be driving for an express delivery… remember the job held by Charlotta and her father Morrison McMillan Fay in Delta and Montrose Counties, respectively? Another occupation listed for Ed Fay is Driver for Excelsior Stables, when stables were still a thing, prior to being ousted by automobiles.

All of these Ed Fays are listed in city directories. Are they different Ed Fays? Certainly, that is possible. Several of them could be the same fellow. If one takes the dates and locations and puts them on a timeline, one cannot rule out any of these men as being the same person. But if one tries to take any of the men and connect them with a wife and family, we have not been able to do that either. Ed Fay did not seem to stay situated.

I want to reiterate what we know of the sons and sons-in-law of Morrison McMillan and Cynthia Fay– that they were miners and skilled horsemen. In addition to farming skills we already discussed, one would assume that W. A. had the same basic foundational skill set and/or inclinations by the time he left home, and that any contact with his family would have enhanced those career choices.


1893 is the year we last knew of W. A. Fay’s location, living in Franklin, Nebraska. What would cause a teenage boy at that time at age 16 to leave home? One’s imagination can run wild with the possibilities.

If we look at the history of the area, there are three glaring facts.

One is that 1893 was the year of a terrible economic downturn in the United States of America, and Nebraska was hit hard. One of the major compounding issues was an equally devastating drought that made the crops fail and farmers unable to support their herds of cattle. If you have ever tried to sell cattle when everyone else is selling cattle, you know that the bottom drops out of the price, so you get next to nothing for your sale. If cattle were bought on credit with a hope of selling calves or calves grown to heifers, the rancher would not only lose income planned for the year, but still owe the bank.

A second fact of 1893 was the Chicago World’s Fair May – October, 1893, officially called The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in the tradition of London’s 1855 Great Exhibition and meant to surpass the spectacular 1889 Paris Exhibition at which the Eiffel Tower was unveiled. In addition to celebrating Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the new world, the 1893 event showcased and celebrated Chicago’s recovery from the Great Chicago Fire and by many accounts succeeded in surpassing all the exhibitions to that point in time. Twenty-seven million people attended the event from across the United States and around the world.

Related to the second fact is the third fact of 1893. Buffalo Bill, William Cody, reformulated his wild west show to perform for the duration of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. For the event, he changed the name to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. William Cody had completed a successful European tour, and he saw an opportunity to capitalize upon the promises of the Chicago Exhibition. He arrived in Chicago with his show March 20 with the first performance April 3, almost a full month before the actual opening of the exposition. By locating and securing an adjacent venue location, he was able to quite nearly fill an 18,000 seat arena daily for the duration of the Chicago tenure, selling out some days, without having to share by 50% the door revenue, as he would have been required to do by the exposition director. The show was full of its luster, complete with cowboys, Indians, Cossacks, Annie Oakley, and the riding and sharp-shooting Buffalo Bill. The event was hugely popular and successful, serving to give many the opportunity to witness the event. People of all ages across the land who did not personally attend Buffalo Bill’s wild west spectacular heard about it during that summer and for years to come.

People who live in Nebraska would notice another important point, our third fact. Buffalo Bill, officially William Cody, resided in North Platte, Nebraska. On the Platte River. The distance between Franklin, Nebraska and North Platte is about 145 miles. Today it is driven in 2 hours and 15 minutes. In 1893, in addition to travel by horse, train travel was common, and very common to the Fay family who routinely traveled the region, back home to Council Bluffs/Omaha, to other regional destinations for political conventions and church meetings, and as far as Washington State to visit family. One would have to believe that every child in Nebraska for sure, if not in the United States, knew of Buffalo Bill by 1893. He was the superhero of the era, and his proximity likely added to his allure.

Add to this fact that Buffalo Bill’s very first Wild West extravaganza was presented May 19, 1883 in Omaha, Nebraska. A reminder– Omaha is directly across the river from W. A.’s childhood home prior to the move to Nebraska, Council Bluffs, Iowa. In 1883, W. A. Fay was 7 years of age. Ferry service and a railroad bridge provided people access across the Missouri river that separated the two cities, the first road bridge not completed until 1888. Grandfather Wooster Fay frequented Omaha for political and civic events, staying overnight at a local hotel. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Omaha was highly publicized locally for weeks in advance, anticipation surely mounting. The actual show was delayed a day due to weather but proceeded the next day with 10,000 said to be in attendance, launching the Wild West tour in spectacular fashion. One newspaper account stated that a second show was scheduled to occur the following day in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Whether or not the second show occurred I have not been able to verify.

Was seven-year-old Wooster A. Fay one of the lucky children who, along with sisters Charlotte and Eleanor, get to attend that inaugural Wild West exhibition? Perhaps he did, especially if the second show was presented in Council Bluffs. Regardless, it is not unreasonable to think that W. A. experienced all the western glory a young boy could imagine. The show was, in fact, spectacular for the era. While it was a new format, by then William Cody was an expert in showmanship and had assembled an array of expert cowboys and a contingent of Native Americans to tell the story of the west in a compelling and romantic way. You may notice that I am trying to avoid the use of the word “show,” because William Cody preferred not to use the term, but rather an “exhibition.” He wanted to leave the impression of real or historical events portrayed for people to experience the wild west– as he wanted it told. So, despite the fact that yes, William Cody was a very effective showman, to a young child, Buffalo Bill was even better than today’s superheroes. He was a real person. You would hear about him, read about him, and sometimes, just sometimes, you might be lucky enough to see him.

The Departure of W. A.

Let us set the scene. In December of 1892, W. A. and his younger brother Malcolm attended special church services. The Congregational Church is of the Reformed tradition of Christianity. The emphasis is upon individual priesthood, which means that each person develops a connection with God directly… one does not go through a hierarchy of other people, priests, or bishops to get direction or help from God, or to be able to pray to God. So, it is likely that December was a meaningful time for the boys, resulting in their making a commitment before God and the congregation by baptism and acceptance into full membership of the church. As is true in several other Christian traditions, this was an expected transition for the boys to make at this time in their lives, along with their peers, and there may have been encouragement or preparation and classes toward that direction. Still, it is most likely that the event was chosen by them and meaningful to them.

By January, for sure, plans were well underway in North Platte, Nebraska as William Cody prepared his Wild West reformulation for the Chicago Exposition. In addition to the star cowboys, Indians, and sharp shooters, Cody would need other riders, musicians, and workers to help move and organize the transportation of the horses, buffalo, and elk and to care for them during the Chicago stay.

W. A. was a student at Franklin Academy alongside students, teachers, and staff from all over the region. We already know that W. A. was aware of Buffalo Bill and likely held him in high regard. If even one of W. A.’s acquaintances at the esteemed Franklin Academy had a brother, sister, aunt, or uncle who reached out and suggested that William Cody might utilize his service, W. A. would have known that intermediary and was at an age, disposition, and skill set that would lead him to at least strongly consider the tempting offer. What an opportunity!

Add to that, the economic contraction that became the Panic of 1893 began in January. As the year progressed, drought and hot winds assaulted the crops, causing widespread crop failure. As fall began, the economic crisis deepened.

Did W. A. leave to try to join William Cody and was he in Chicago by Cody’s opening in April? Did he, instead, go to Chicago as the crops were failing and decide to try to stay? Did he ever actually join Buffalo Bill’s show?

It seems quite likely that W. A., whose primary job was in the fields, not in the school, would have been put in a difficult spot. The family, by now very large with seven living children, was in financial crisis. Money for school tuition would be short. W. A. really had no work if there was no crop. This was an era when young men generally were expected to go out and find their way, particularly if they perceived they were being a burden to their family. Further, W. A. likely felt an obligation to find employment and make money, not only to support himself, but to send home. Whether or not he was able to accomplish either of these goals is not clear, but leaving was a much more attractive option than staying. In good economic times, staying within the safety of community and home might have been the preferred choice. These were not good times. Unless you were working for a wild west show.

Now is a good time to state that in economic downturns, the showbuisness industry traditionally has provided work for people.* The work was not necessarily stable or constant, but when a paycheck arrived, it often surpassed what was available in other industries. From the 1890’s the wild west shows, and later the moving film industry, provided opportunities for a man or woman, young or old, who possessed skills and the connections to get a gig.

Wild West, Circus, and Oklahoma: Three Clues Converge

One could proclaim that 1893 was the pinnacle of the Wild West performance era and be done with any discussion, but to accept that narrow interpretation would belie the breadth, the nuance, and the profound impact that the movement had upon the participants, the audience, and the culture at large. Several big stars and leaders in the industry got their start with Buffalo Bill and even performed at the Chicago Exposition. Annie Oakley, Mabel Hackney Tompkins, Charles Tompkins, and “Pawnee Bill” Gordon William Lillie are some notable examples. Mabel was an expert trick rider, and William Cody recruited her for his show when she was a very young lady. Charles Tompkins, a bronco rider and trick roper, met Mabel during a period of her recuperation from an injury. They fell in love, married, and started their own show.

The Tompkins were not the only new act in town. There were dozens of wild west shows forming and crossing the country, performing for thrilled audiences. Pawnee Bill started as an interpreter for the Pawnee Indian tribe for William Cody’s show. He met his wife Mary Emma “May” Manning in 1886 when the Wild West show was on tour in Philadelphia. They fell in love, and after a courtship, they convinced her parents to let her marry him. The newlyweds moved to Blue Hawk Peak, Pawnee, Oklahoma where she actively learned to shoot and ride and became the star of the show they created. They managed a ranch which formed the base for their exhibitions where people could come from all over to see their spectacular and the resident buffalo herd.

Buffalo Bill did not create the concept of the wild west show. It started earlier, and P. T. Barnum was one of the first entrepreneurs to capitalize upon the world’s fascination with the American West. In that sense, it is not surprising that the concepts of circus, wild west exhibition, and rodeo began to overlap and blend. Many of the shows became international in their flavor, not only taking the American West on overseas tours, where they were wildly popular, but also to recruit riders and acts from all ends of the earth, including Russia, Europe, Asia, South America, and Mexico. Other traditional circus acts of contortionists, oddities, and exotic animals became commonplace in the touring shows and the shows in residence on ranches.

Historians of the era report that it was not unusual for young people to leave home to “join the circus” and/or wild west show. The terms could be used interchangeably. Circus shows included horse/buffalo/wild west exhibitions, and vice versa. Each show was constructed and billed to be the biggest, best, most spectacular show for your dollar, and the allure of attraction to youth was very real.

Shows toured for a season, then they were off. The season ran roughly April through October, then the show would winter somewhere. Not all workers were carried over through the winter. Those that did often lived at the show’s ranch or whatever location the show chose to “winter.”

The main stars, acts, and owners knew each other, and many were good friends. Stars would work with one show, then contract to work with another. Likewise, other, less well-known and unknown workers would switch from one job to another, sometimes changing during a tour if they crossed paths with a show that was headed to a desired destination.

In today’s jargon, the workers were a part of a gig economy. And as today, when the gigs are coming and paying well, life is good. When a show fails, unable to pay their workders or assemble a show for the next season, the stranded workers must find other jobs. Research of the wild west shows underscores a surprising frequency of failed tours. Even a star cowboy, much less a horse trainer, stagecoach driver, or groomer would not have steady work, but rather would go from one gig to another, and often look for other, unrelated work during the winter months.

101 Wild West– a key that unlocks?

Indian Territory, Oklahoma Territory, and eventually the state of Oklahoma, the name depending upon the decade discussed, was a prominent center for Wild West shows. The Tompkins retired to El Reno, Oklahoma by 1927. Mabel continued to ride competitively, and the pair helped establish the thriving rodeo culture and infrastructure in central Oklahoma, including nearby Oklahoma City. The Tompkins were great friends with Gordon and May Lillie who were operating their show and ranch in Pawnee. As mentioned, Pawnee Bill started as interpreter for the Pawnee Indian of Nebraska and Kansas, removed to Indian Territory now Oklahoma by 1892.

Another Indian Territory ranch of note is the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Ranch at Bliss, later known as Marland, Oklahoma, just south of Ponca City. The 101 Ranch, established as a very large cattle ranch by Col. George Washington Miller and his wife Molly, was developed further by his three sons Joseph, George Lee., and Zack after G. W.’s death. If you take my earlier description of bigger and better wild west shows, the Miller Brothers 101 was all that, and more. The show hired all the best, 1000 people for one show, and at times more than one touring show simultaneously. Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Geronimo, and many other big names came to work for the show at one time or another. The Miller Brothers developed connections in the new movie industry, and they helped launch the careers of a slew of western actors, including Tom Mix.

In addition to touring, the 101 Ranch developed an arena and stands for training their acts, but also for shows on the premises. Their marketing success resulted in people coming from near and far to see the wonders at the ranch, including watching acts in residence, a trained grizzly bear, and elephants. The 101 was a destination for presidents, kings, millionaires, and the most famous personalities of the day, as well as regular local citizens and tourists.

One of the key facts about the 101 Ranch in particular, and all the wild west shows in general, was the diversity the ranches and shows supported. Cowgirls worked and were paid alongside the cowboys, as were African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Mexicans. Visitors were as amazed by the village of performers and workers, either at their home bases or on tours, as they were with anything else, seeing people of all nationalities and origins working, living, and training together.

As one delves into the wild west history, there is a lot that can make people of today shudder, wondering about patronizing Native Americans, or that the white conquest of the west was glorified. In all, though, the wild west shows did promote the Native Americans, largely underscoring their courage, bravery, and nobility. For many performers, the shows also provided needed work and validation. The wild west shows were a shining light of early egalitarianism, showing that people of both sexes, all races, ethnicities, and social classes are equal and of value within a larger community.

While there were other wild west shows in the area and the nation, I am not intending for this to be a comprehensive history of wild west shows, but to to explore what happened to W. A. who became Edgar Fay.

Passing the Fay Farm to the right (east), northbound, NE of Franklin, NE Nov 2019

The Emergence of Edgar Fay: A PROPOSED Scenario

You may recall, from Part 1 of our series, one of the very few clues Edgar Fay’s children remembered as adults that their father told him of his early life was that he had worked in a circus or rodeo. What I mean is that he used the words Circus and Rodeo. The words were passed down, without elaboration, or if there was elaboration, it was not recalled by the children, whose father later left them too soon. Let’s take that clue and go back to Franklin, Nebraska where W. A. was a youth.

In January, 1893, W. A. was a student at Franklin Academy. Of all the things being discussed among his peers, the buzz was that the Buffalo Bill Wild West Exhibition was getting together their crew to take their show to Chicago for the Columbian Exhibition! The thought would have quickened W. A.’s pulse, thinking of the wonder, the glory of getting to be in the company of those cowboys.

Unidentified Franklin Academy Boys, circa 1900, taken by Charlotta Fay, photographer, courtesy Franklin County, Nebraska Historical Society

W. A. was no slacker. He was a hard worker, a habit learned from his father and grandfather, both farmers. In addition to learning about plants, botany, and fruit propagation, he became the one to take the lead in taking care of the farm animals and enjoyed working with his grandfathers’ cattle when he got the chance. After all, he had been working on his horsemanship skills since he got the chance to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as a child. The thunder of hooves, the cowboys racing, roping bulls with great speed and deftness were all scenes seared into his memory, and he practiced these skills whenever he had a chance, putting in the extra effort as he went about his chores. If he took the wagon to town to get supplies, he was an expert at making good speed, turning tight corners, avoiding getting stuck in mud, and he had great pride in being trusted with important tasks. If called upon to ride his horse to the next farm to deliver a message or borrow an implement, he learned how to coax the most out of his horse, jumping logs and streams. He could even jump onto his horse and vault to the other side, just to impress the girls.

He did impress the girls. With dark hair and the bluest of eyes, he was medium height and build, tan and fit. He was a dashing figure in public. His doting older sisters saw that he had the right clothes for church, but mostly he was outside.

W. A. was very bright, and he became the person in the family most trusted to figure out a problem when something broke. Even if he knew nothing about the machine, if he had enough time to look at it and tinker, he could get it to work again. It was not that he enjoyed or preferred this sort of work, but it was necessary in order to complete the job at hand, finish the work, and get home for supper. For him, school was okay, but it was a luxury he did not frequently get to enjoy. In his large family, the boys kept the farm going and kept food on the table. Their father Morrison enjoyed farming, but his health was not the best, and each year he relied more on his boys. Because of the pioneer heritage of his father and grandfather, W. A. did learn a lot from them about ranch work, livestock, and farming, knowledge acquired from their hard-learned first-hand experience.

The spring of 1893 started normally. He helped his father with spring planting. Soon enough, it became clear that the growing season would not be normal. When his friends talked of joining Buffalo Bill, at first W. A. resisted. He had responsibilities, and he had the comforts of his home. One of his friends left before school was out, headed north, having obtained a job helping to transport the horses to Chicago. As spring moved into summer, the rains did not come as they should. The wind was hot. There were wells to pump the water, but the water was not enough to save the crops from the incessant heat. W. A. could tell his father was concerned. Businesses in the city were going under, and people were unemployed.

W. A.’s parents and grandparents were very knowledgeable about the world, the economy, and politics. They had opinions about the currency system, civil justice, the importance of education and opportunity for women, and they engaged in civic and church activities that supported their ideology. Their children heard and likely participated in conversations about the ideology and implementation, and W. A. would have a broad perspective of the world and his role in it. He also would have known before the average child his age about the coming storm of economic concerns. As a concerned, dutiful son, the future suddenly would look uncertain. What would happen with failing crops with nothing to sell, little to put by for winter, and nothing to feed livestock? Would there be money to return to school in the fall? With all the children the Fays had to feed, he would have felt guilty about being a hungry teenage boy, continuing to rely on his parents if other opportunities presented themselves. While something of a dreamer, he also was practical. He was, after all, one who could see a problem in all its dimensions and know that he had the power to fix what he could.

Eleanor “Nellie” Fay (1874-1967), sister of W. A. Fay, two years older

It would be with this concern that W. A. would approach his family about his inspired idea to go north to join his friends who by now were in Chicago working for the Wild West show. His parents discouraged the move, likely forbidding him to embark on what they saw as a risky move, taking him far from family love and support. Not being a quarrelsome young man, he would have been respectful, and he would have made his plan. He would go north, work to support himself, and make more than enough money to send home and help the family.

He had a partner, maybe an older brother of a classmate, with whom he traveled to catch a train for Chicago. After making his way to the Wild West location, he met up with his contact to see if he could get employment. In some capacity, he stayed in Chicago, likely in a supportive role in exchange for food. In that setting, care of horses would be the entry job for which he had the most experience. He hoped to prove his mettle and work his way into more trusted and more exciting positions.

When he left Franklin, Nebraska, W. A./Edgar entered the gig economy. Likely, he would never again work in a sustained career across decades. By making this one decision to leave home, the skills Ed acquired led him to his next gigs. Each gig may have provided added opportunity to obtain more skills, but each with a narrow range of employment opportunities, and away from the normal path toward accrual of economic security: retirement, savings, house equity, or job tenure or seniority.

W. A. likely changed his name, possibly more than once. I can imagine the conversation,”Hey, who do we have here, son? What is your name?” “Wooster.” No, I doubt it. Wooster was an old-fashioned name, hard to spell, hard to say. Did W. A. immediately respond with the name “Ed?” Maybe. If you recall, Addison, the name of his grandfather Fay’s beloved brother, might be W. A.’s middle name, a shortened version “Addie” might have been his moniker, and “Eddie” a shortened version by his nickname-loving family. As a teenager, the more grown-up version “Ed” would give him an edge in trying to look older to get a job. The wild west shows were show business, even if they pretended not to be, and using stage names was a normal occurrence. Youngsters leaving home and not wanting family to track them also had a reason to hide their identity. Likely, W. A.’s name and stated age began to swim at this point in time. Ed would have been known, for sure, as Ed, Edgar, and Edward, if for no other reason than confusion on the part of employers, friends, and census takers. Any Edgar will tell you that fact. He also may have used aliases we do not know. His age became what he needed it to be for the situation, if he needed to appear older or younger, again consistent with show business survival.

Ed’s wild west foray was not immediately what he hoped or imagined. There was not enough money to send home. When the Chicago Exhibition was over, the Fay family’s fears of deepening economic crisis became reality across the United States, and Ed would see the papers, hear the talk, and know that going home was not a good option. Other shows were forming, and Ed would continue to find work where he could, going from one job to another.

Historic Vindicator Mine, recent photo. Victor, Colorado near Cripple Creek

When shows went into winter season, his employment might continue with the same show company, caring for and training horses, but most years he had to find other opportunities. Based upon the evidence, likely options for Ed were mining in Colorado, driving express wagon delivery, and working in livery stables. Because the shows would cross the United States, stopping at locations large and small, Ed could get jobs in Colorado with fair regularity, if he desired to do so. By 1900 it appears that Ed did some mining for gold in Cripple Creek. Even though mining provided an opportunity to make a lot of money, it was dangerous and back-breaking work. Mining became more dangerous in 1903 and 1904 with the development and escalation of the Cripple Creek Labor Strike. The risk to miners in the area were very real and violent. The last we see of Ed Fay in Cripple Creek is 1902. Fay was wise enough, especially by his age by now about 26 years, to avoid conflict and unnecessary danger. By 1903 Ed transitioned to delivery and stable work between wild west gigs, as a more secure life. City directories suggest he was in Denver doing delivery and stable work 1907 and 1908.

Here we need to bring in another part of the Fay family, the Yorks. Ed’s mother Cynthia’s parents were Abram Simmons York (1818-1907) and Margaret J. O’Neal York (1821-1904). Both of Ed’s maternal grandparents were born in the state of New York. Abram fought for the Union in the Civil War, apparently sustaining some injury. As they neared age 50, Abram and Margaret moved westward to Iowa City, then to Butler County, Kansas, and finally Kay County, Oklahoma by 1900, prior to statehood, where their son, farmer John A. York, resided. Because they moved west from New York to Iowa, John’s younger sister Cynthia would meet Morrison McMillan Fay. When and where Cynthia and M. M. met is not certain, but by 1870, as Cynthia was a teenage schoolgirl, her father Abram had a job working at the train depot in Iowa City, Iowa.

Ed’s Uncle John’s oldest sister Aunt Mary Hester York (1842-1932) and her husband Uncle Wright Holmes Auchmoody also moved westward from New York. They had a farm in Dixon County, Nebraska by 1870. Dixon is in far northeast Nebraska on the west bank of the Missouri River, upriver from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Mary and W. H. had two children, Eli and Ida Auchmoody (1870-1961), who were older first cousins of Edgar. By 1892 Aunt Mary and her family were in Wichita, Kansas, where Cousin Ida was teaching. Shortly afterward, Ida married another teacher Andrew J. Smith. A biography of Andrew states that for three years Andrew was a school principal in Hot Springs, Arkansas before he returned north to attend medical school. Andrew and Ida both became physicians and prior to 1900, probably by 1894, settled in Ponca City, Oklahoma to practice… just north of the 101 Ranch. Over time, the Doctors Smith acquired a 1500 acre ranch in Osage County, residing in Foraker, then Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Wright, in the meanwhile, remain a bit of an enigma. They and their son Eli are living in separate residences in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1900, a city benefiting from the fortunes being made at nearby Cripple Creek mine, before moving on to Los Angeles County before Wright was back in Ponca City, Kay, Oklahoma at his daughter Dr. Smith’s home when he died in 1905.

Telluride, Colorado circa 1905, photo from a Fay family album

Mary and Wright’s movements illustrate a trend in Edgar Fay’s maternal family locations. If one were plotting the locations of residence, one could just start with drawing a circle around southeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma Territory. More specific locations are Wichita, Sedgwick County, Kansas; El Dorado and Turkey Creek which is south of El Dorado in adjacent Butler County, Kansas; Indian Territorial areas now known as Ponca City, Kay County and Foraker and Pawhuska, Osage County. From there the trend was for some family members to move farther west, to New Mexico, Colorado and Los Angeles, California. The northern border of Oklahoma counties of Kay and Pawhuska are the southern Kansas state line, and the farthest distance we are talking about for our circled cluster is about 250 miles between Pawhuska to the southeast and Wichita, Kansas to the northwest. There was quite a bit of family activity in this area with 4 generations of Yorks and O’Neals residing, some remaining, but some venturing westward by 1900. Still, Ponca City had become a centering point for the family in the early 1900’s. In addition to the death of Mary’s husband in 1905 described above, in 1904 Mary’s mother Margaret O’Neal York died at the Ponca City home of her youngest daughter Ida York Richardson and her husband Ed D. Richardson, a blacksmith, and it is the location where the Drs. Smith established their first medical practice.

Is it any surprise then to find a 1910 census record of Edward Fay as a single man, farm laborer, residing with an older couple in Chandler, Lincoln County, Oklahoma, a mere 82 miles south of the Ponca City home of Cousin Ida? By this point in his life, even if he still did wild west gigs, his skills as a farmhand would be valuable, and word of mouth in the region, particularly with cousins such as the Dr.’s Smith or one of the wild west shows as references, would serve him well in procuring a position more secure and less risky than living on the road. The Chandler location is 72 miles south of the 101 Ranch at old Bliss, OK and 53 miles south of the Pawnee Bill Gordon Lillie Ranch at Pawnee, both clear shots from Chandler, with few obstacles, and a short distance for a fellow accustomed to traveling across country for the past 13 years.

In a way, the maternal York side of Ed’s family puts some context to the rest of the family and their movements, and therefore to Ed’s. This branch of Yorks were farmers and ranchers. Aunt Mary and Uncle Wright moved to Colorado even before Mary’s sister Cynthia and Morrison moved to Montrose. That so many of the principal maternal relatives were connected to Kay County, Oklahoma lends weight to the theory that Oklahoma-based wild west operations would have appealed to Ed Fay. Another way of putting it, there are two main ways that Cousin Ida connects Ed to his future wife Mellie Burns. One is that Ida’s work and ranch in Oklahoma drew Ed to the region, and his Oklahoma location, readily accessible by train and/or automobile, would have allowed travel by Ed to Oklahoma City where he might have had occasion to meet Mellie, or more likely, she would have taken a trip with her grandmother Lucy Jayne Harles Craig to a 101 Ranch or Pawnee bill exhibition where the Mellie and Ed encountered each other. A second way is through Cousin Ida’s and/or her husband Andrew’s former residence in Hot Springs. With their connections, a trip with Cousin Ed to see friends, or a business venture with Ed to Arkansas to purchase horses, might the Dr.’s Smith have paved the way to Arkansas opportunities for Mellie and Ed to find each other?

There is more to unearth about Aunt Mary York Auchmoody and her family. Even in writing this article, some curious gems emerged that will need more polishing and suggest a need for more digging.

Edgar and Mellie

When Mellie first saw Ed, he was an older man, age 40, and she was about 26. Wherever they met, it was evident that Ed was a man from another planet. Good looking, he wore denim pants, cotton shirt, a vest, fancy belt buckle, and a brimmed hat sitting back on his head of dark hair. His tan made his blue eyes sparkle. His easy, engaging smile captivated her heart. Conversation was easy, but he was a better listener than talker. He was funny, and he was sincere.

The year 1916 was a rough time for Ed and for Mellie. William Cody and Pawnee Bill’s combined grand, glorious show ended prematurely when money ran out. Although the 101 Ranch was still in operation, World War I was the worry of the nation. Mellie’s beloved father died in January at only 46 years of age, and Mellie was devastated at losing him so soon, leaving behind an entire family to grieve. Mellie’s youngest sibling Charlie was only three years of age.

Mellie and Ed were a perfect match. Mellie found Ed’s life history exciting and adventurous. He had been everywhere and experienced events and personalities she could only imagine. She found in Ed a strong protector who knew much of the world, could see things clearly, and had common sense and lots of practical skills.

Ed found in Mellie a lovely, sweet woman who was not a child. She was spiritual, rooted in her faith, something he found comforting and reminded him of his family. Having been from a large family, he was not intimidated by hers. He found the laughter and southern ways of her boisterous family a balm. Her mother and siblings took to him right away, welcoming him, cooking for him, and loving him. The younger siblings climbed on him, and he enjoyed horseplay and making them laugh.

Mellie’s paternal grandparents Rev. George Washington and Mahala Jane Black Burns were pleased with the match. George Washington Burns also may have played a role in introducing Mellie and Ed as he went about his missionary work in his travels to Indian Territory. He was reassured by Ed’s Christian stance and commitment to attend Unity Baptist Church with Mellie and the rest of the family. November, 1916 provided another blow to the family when Mahala Jane fell and died some days later from her injuries.

September 1917 Ed and Mellie began their committed life together, full of love, hope, and excitement for their future. They married in a small service presided over by grandfather Rev. George Washington Burns. Almost simultaneously, Ed registered for the World War I draft, listing Mellie as his closest relative, occupation farmer, working for C. L. Dunlop, Route 2, Arkadelphia, Arkansas.

….and they lived happily ever after. Right? Isn’t that how it ends??

* Showbusiness is not ALWAYS a good industry during economic downturns. I am writing this piece during a once in 100 years pandemic. 1893, bad as it was, did not consist of the added issue of a highly transmissible illness when people are in close quarters. As we are seeing in 2020, the careers are being derailed for musicians, dancers, actors; lighting, sound, and other technical directors; and all affiliated with theatre or arena performance, small venue, and movie and television production. Our hearts go out to all of them and their families.

A note regarding W. A.’s identity: DNA testing (Y-111, Big Y 700, and multiple autosomal DNA tests across several labs), in combination with considerable research and documentation, proves that Edgar Fay, the subject of our series, is a son of Morrison McMillan Fay and Cynthia Alice York Fay. They had 4 sons. We know that Edgar cannot be Morrison McMillan Fay, Jr. or Justin Brooks Fay. The dates, ages, and circumstances correspond most closely with the oldest son Wooster A. Fay.

The proposed scenario of Edgar Fay’s story was compiled using as much actual evidence as possible from records, newspaper articles of family members, historical facts, family stories, and personality traits and skill sets of siblings and descendants. The fact-finding is not complete, but it is time to share what we know and bring Edgar into the light of day!


Deepest thanks to the countless individuals, cousins, family members, related on all sides, and not, who DNA tested and contributed helpful family information, historical context, photos, family histories, family stories to make this journey so successful. This is a very large family that became disconnected over the years due to geography and time. The progress made in reconnecting the dots of this story would NOT have been possible without each one of you, and it the renewed and continued connections are the best surviving legacy of the journey. Linda Forrest is a jewel, and her incessant research, willingness to share, insights, wisdom, and now friendship are worth than words can express.

DNA and Research Labs and Sites:

Family Tree DNA Y-DNA, Big Y, FamilyFinder, mtDNA


Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection


101 Ranch Old Timers Association, 1609 Donald Avenue, Ponca City, OK 74604

First Congregational United Church of Christ (current name), Franklin, Nebraska 601 14th Ave, Franklin, NE 68939-1505

Franklin County, NE Historical Society, Hwy 136 & Hwy 10 Intersection, Franklin, NE 68939

Johnson County, Arkansas Historical Society and Heritage Center, 131 West Main Street, Clarksville, Arkansas 72830

Montrose County Historical Museum, 21 N. Rio Grande St., Montrose, CO 81401-3467

Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma History Center, and Research Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive, Oklahoma City, OK 73105

Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum, P. O. Box 493, Pawnee, OK 74058

Books and Films:

Foley, Larry, The First Boys of Spring, a film narrated by Billy Bob Thornton, University of Arkansas Press, 2015

Wallis, Michael, The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999.

Woodard, Colin, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Penguin Publishing Group, 2012.