Margaret Royal Laybourn was the lone protestor to object to the arrival of intercontinental ballistic missiles in Cheyenne in 1958 — sort of.
She’d brought two of her children and was pregnant with another.
Such weaponry had come to the command base at F.E. Warren in the midst of the nuclear arms race. Its arrival was celebrated by some including those under the false impression that the Soviet Union had stronger missile capability than the United States. Laybourn, in contrast, picketed while pushing a stroller outside the building where Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. Gale McGee was slated to speak.
“Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind,” Laybourn’s sign read.
“I just walked back and forth in front of that door and all these people were going in,” Laybourn said during a 2010 interview with the Wyoming State Archives. “I wasn’t embarrassed. I was on a cause.”
On a cause was how Laybourn spent much of her nearly 100 years. The New York Times referred to her as “the Rosa Parks of Cheyenne’s anti-bomb movement.”
She did activist work while pursuing artistic and entrepreneurial endeavors, outdoor and international expeditions and raising 10 children. Laybourn passed away in December at the age of 99.
“I’ll bore you to death if you don’t move on because I remember everything that ever happened to me,” Laybourn told historian Mark Junge during the 2010 interview. Junge had originally set out to interview Margaret’s husband, Robert, about his World War II experiences but ended up speaking with both of them separately at length over the course of a few days. Out of the 600 or so interviews Junge completed for Wyoming’s archives, there was no one quite like Margaret Laybourn, he said.
“She had a strong soul and a strong heart and a strong mind,” Junge said. “She was one of these people that’s kind of behind the scenes and does all this stuff and keeps the community stitched together.”
As a little girl — then Margaret Reed — she lived with her family in Casper during the Great Depression. Her parents, Kathleen and Royal Reed, doted on her and her older sister, Mary June. Most of her family called her “Miggs,” a nickname coined by her father.
Born and bred a Democrat, Laybourn’s parents were both for and of the working class. Her mother organized women’s support of President Franklin Roosevelt and her father made sure the family always made “union label” purchases. “Testament to Youth,” a World War I service nurse’s memoir about the senselessness of war, was required reading for Margaret and Mary June.
The Reeds moved to Cheyenne, where Kathleen thought her children would receive a better education. At St. Mary’s Catholic High School, Margaret’s faith in habitual acts of kindness was cemented. It was also in Cheyenne that her artistic and entrepreneurial endeavors took root.
At 15, she went into business with her father, opening a shooting gallery to entertain the troops on the air force base. It was a mix of work and play, since Margaret would often run upstairs from the gallery to dance with the soldiers, before hurrying back to reload the rifles.
After graduation, she bought a flower shop. As sole owner and operator of Margaret Reed Flowers in downtown Cheyenne, she was the nation’s youngest florist at 19, according to a 1943 brief in the Casper Star-Tribune.
There and back
Her floral arrangements established her shop as the go-to for Cheyenne weddings and funerals. It also kicked off a writing career, in which her words regularly appeared in newsletters for Florists Transworld Delivery. The success of her shop ultimately made it possible for Laybourn to travel to far-off places, where she befriended bohemians and ex-servicemen, danced at embassy halls and flew over the Andes Mountains in a tiny monoplane. She briefly attended La Esmeralda, the art school where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera taught in Mexico City.
In the letters the young Laybourn wrote to her family, one could see a worldview expanded by the inequalities and the activism she witnessed, said Tatiana Maxwell, one of her daughters.
“You can kind of see those ideas growing in her early 20s,” Maxwell said. “Once those ideas really started to grow, she just basically stood for the underdog.”
Laybourn returned to Wyoming on the “wings of a song,” she told Junge, after a letter from a young man back home caught up to her in Brazil. While they had a “chaotic courtship,” Margaret and Bob Laybourn spent 72 years happily married until his passing in 2019.
“My life changed the minute I met her,” Bob told Junge in 2010. “Joy entered my life!”
Refuge on Warren Avenue
The two purchased a house on Warren Avenue in Cheyenne, where they raised 10 children. It served as “headquarters for the great Margaret Laybourn enterprise,” Maxwell said, which came with a heavy dose of merriment via neighborhood plays and parades. At the center was a backyard trampoline where all kids were welcome.
“Whoever was sort of, you know, on the edges [of society], whoever those people were, they were welcome at our house,” Maxwell said. “My mother created this space so that if you had trouble, you could go to my parents’ house.”
Maxwell can remember a time when her mother was driving the family’s Volkswagen van and spotted a young man hitchhiking on the interstate. When it appeared that police were about to stop him, Laybourn pulled the van over and jumped out, pretending to know him and apologized for forgetting to pick him up.
“She just figures the kid is getting in trouble with the cops. So she puts him in the car and drives him wherever he needs to go,” Maxwell said. “She could just do stuff like that.”
Picking up hitchhikers was actually not unusual for the Laybourns, who ventured onto highways each Sunday to reach nearby mountains and rivers, Maxwell said. The practice embodied her mother’s Catholic belief “to do good” and “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me.”
That same faith guided Laybourn to oppose the Vietnam War. Over the holidays, Laybourn draped the Warren Avenue house in black material instead of Christmas lights along with a sign that read “Christ is a baby in Vietnam.”
For that, she was removed from the parade list for Frontier Days — something she’d been part of since she was 12. Eventually a friend reinstated her.
She continued her anti-bomb activism through the decades — “I picketed every single time that the big wigs came” — and stood in solidarity with efforts to repeal the death penalty in Wyoming and to get the state to recognize Martin Luther King Day in 1990. Laybourn fit her activism in where she could, handing out leaflets in front of the Safeway — usually with at least one kid in tow — before walking in to do her own grocery shopping.
Romps, reinvention and rose-colored glasses
Just as Laybourn never shied away from speaking up, she was a bold outdoorswoman. At 60 years old, she climbed Gannett Peak.
“The thrill is just the same as having a baby,” Laybourn told Junge. “You have to go through hell to get there. Then there’s the reward.”
Other adventures included bike rides in the Snowy Range and floats down the North Platte River. She often took her camera on these adventures, which in turn spurred a career as a freelance journalist, starting with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. During that time, she rescued more than 44,000 film and glass plate negatives by Francis F. Brammar from a fate in the trash. The images, now housed in the state archives, feature decades worth of Wyoming politicians, celebrities and youngsters. When the Cheyenne paper cut Laybourn loose, she found work with its competitor the Casper Star-Tribune.
“That was kind of her admonition, you know. Don’t stand there. Do something,” Joan Barron said. The veteran journalist got to know Laybourn when they were both members of U.S. Association of Press Women. Laybourn contributed to the Casper paper for many years, mostly photographs, but also columns like a dreamy remembrance of a childhood Christmas in Casper.
“It was the fact that she was such a reader, that she was such a good writer,” son Pete Laybourn said. That voraciousness developed in childhood partly in secret. When “Gone with the Wind” came out, Laybourn’s mom decided she was too young to read it. So after school, when nobody else was home, she’d disappear into its pages.
Laybourn got glasses as a child to correct crossed eyes, and wore them the rest of her life. But her husband often joked about another pair of frames she kept, Pete Laybourn said — in a gibe that was illustrative about her outlook on life.
“I was with my dad and mom and … we pulled up in front of the house and we’re getting ready to get out,” he said. “I can’t remember what she was talking about. But my father said ‘Oh, she’s got her rose-colored glasses on again.’ And she responded, ‘I will tell you this, they work.’”
WyoProfiles examine the remarkable, notable and fascinating lives of state residents — both living and gone. If you have an idea for an individual you would like us to profile, email firstname.lastname@example.org.