The Sage Grouse

A Real Wyoming Legend

Disclaimer: Legends and facts are often different things.

John Winchester lived in an isolated location near Buffalo, Wyoming. He either was a bachelor who hired females to keep house or was a serial consumer of mail-order brides, I don’t recall which. Wild rumors about the fates of some of these women were quietly whispered from time to time. Hogs were featured in these sordid stories. I don’t think he was the sort of landowner who tolerated trespassers. He was rugged and tough. He may have been ugly.

Winchester died. His will dictated that he be buried on a rocky ridge overlooking his homestead. The funeral service required the attendance of the funeral director, the pastor and an assortment of distinguished pallbearers. It also required the employment of a notable quantity of dynamite. Unfortunately the pallbearers, inexperienced in such matters, did not purchase quite enough explosive to blast out an over-sized hole in the rock. What’s a burial party to do? Take him back to town after manually lugging his casket up the steep ridge? Leave him for the coyotes? Send someone to town for more of Alfred Nobel’s best? Or cram that casket into the short hole?

I’ve seen only two of the photographs, but I am sure there are many more. A pastor, an insurance agent, a few bankers and some other robust men jumping up and down on Winchester’s casket, slowly forcing it into the rocky tomb, then covering the casket with a huge mound of heavy rocks.

What brought this to mind was a recent conversation about investing in silver. Winchester asked some of the afore-named bankers to save silver dollars for him in the 1960s. He would visit the bank and, welcomed into the vault, sit down at a table to sort the best and oldest (Liberty dollars?), pay for them and haul a sack out to his truck. These sacks went to the ranch, and the rumor was that no one ever found them. (Probably some successor owner did find them and chose not to share the news with the neighbors or the IRS.)

John bought old refrigerators and scrap metal and buried pieces all over his ranch, decoys for the poor fools who might risk their lives to prospect for those silver dollars. If ever “laughing from the grave” was apropos, this is it.

One of the stalwart members of our church was into saving silver coins in the early 1960s. He made an agreement with the City to save all of the parking meter money and put the bags in a secure room until he came in on Saturday mornings and sorted through for rare coins and silver coins. He taught me about coin collecting; I even had a 1909 S DVB penny and zinc war pennies. We would pore through thousands of pennies, nickels and dimes every Saturday (I was 14 or 15 years old) and cull out the exciting ones. It was great fun speculating how someone came to find a 1909 or 1944 penny only, unwittingly, to put it in a parking meter in 1966. But, as the government mints flooded the banks with the non-silver sandwich coins, the fun turned into tedium. When I started high school I had debate meets on Saturdays, so I dropped out of the coin sorting.

I went to visit my old friend when I was in law school; he was dying of cancer, but after a long and satisfying family-oriented life. Not at all like John Winchester.

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