BYRON — Ellen May Tower, of Byron, was just 30 years old on Dec. 9, 1898, when she succumbed to typhoid fever while serving the U.S. Army as a nurse in Puerto Rico — not yet ceded by Spain — in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish-American War.
Her life story may have been cut tragically short, but her death received plenty of ink.
Tower was the first American Army nurse to die as the result of wartime service on foreign soil, and she was the first woman in Michigan — and one of the first in the U.S. — to be accorded a military burial. Her funeral, held Jan. 17, 1899, was attended by at least 5,000 mourners, according to witnesses.
Contemporary newspaper accounts paint a portrait of grand remembrance, with the Jan. 20, 1899 edition of the Owosso Evening Argus noting that “The respect and honor shown to Miss Tower since her death were no less than they would have been had she been a princess.”
Tower’s casket had arrived at the funeral via special train, having first stopped over in Detroit, where the mayor at the time, William C. Maybury (in office 1897-1904) and Brigadier General Henry M. Duffield gave addresses.
Her funeral service was held at the Byron opera house (burned down in 1908) which was decorated “with a profusion of elegant set pieces, one of which was a flag, three by five feet, made of carnations and lilies of the valley,” per the Evening Argus.
One of the speakers eulogized Tower as a “ministering angel” for her work caring for wounded in a military hospital at Montauk, Long Island, where she was stationed prior to heading to Puerto Rico.
Tower’s memorialization extended beyond an elaborate funeral.
The mostly-vanished town of Tower, an unincorporated community in Cheboygan County’s Forest Township, was named for her in 1899.
Closer to home, citizens worked to raise funds for a fitting monument to her in Byron Cemetery.
State Rep. Jacob Kanouse, of Livingston County’s Cohoctah Township, authored a bill asking the Legislature to appropriate $1,000 for a monument.
“The movement would provide a fitting tribute to the memory of a brave and devoted woman,” the Owosso Times wrote in March 1901.
While that legislation was ultimately vetoed, by January 1903 a drive to raise $500 — almost $18,000 today — was nearly complete. On Jan. 23, 1903, the Owosso Times printed the names of 112 individuals and organizations who had contributed.
The Parker Monument Works of Owosso won the contract to create the monument, with the requirement that it be ready for what was then called Decoration Day (now Memorial Day).
“The workmanship and materials will be of the best,” the Times reported, “and must be approved by the committee.”
The final design, hewn from two different granites, stands 10 feet tall from base to top.
The monument’s dedication drew, if not the shoulder-to-shoulder scrum of her funeral, still quite a crowd. One thousand attendees showed up from Owosso alone.
Tower’s monument still stands, despite a couple of early vandalization efforts, and this weekend the Village of Byron’s Memorial Day observances will include a commemoration of the 125th anniversary of her death.
While Tower has managed to go down in history, the first 30 years of her life were relatively nondescript.
The Rev. J.S. Joslin, then a minister at Byron’s Methodist church, said in the Jan. 20, 1899 Evening Argus that Tower was “a plain country girl, whose name had never been sounded out of her own town,” before her sacrifice brought her fame.
Tower’s closest living relative still in Byron is Shirley Mack, her great-great-great-niece.
Much of what Mack knows about her famous ancestor comes from a book published in 1974 to mark Byron’s sesquicentennial. No family tales were handed down, Mack said.
“We didn’t hear any stories, other than we know she was a nurse during the war and, of course, the parade, the big parade the day of her funeral,” Mack said.
Tower’s father, the Civil War veteran Captain Samuel Tower, moved to northern Michigan after Ellen’s death, Mack said. If Ellen had any siblings, no one has ever heard.
Mack says it’s “an honor” to be related to Tower. She is certain her ancestor provided some divine inspiration when it came to choosing her own career path.
Mack worked as an EMT specialist for the Byron Area Ambulance Service for 25 years before retiring.
“I think the nursing idea came down through the family,” Mack said. “I think it was in the blood.”
The scope of Tower’s funeral is somewhat awing.
“Anything over 1,000 people is a lot (for Byron),” Mack joked.
The village’s population has changed little over the decades, from 432 in the 1900 census to 529 in the 2020 count.
Tower may at one time have been the most famous person to hail from Byron, according to Byron Chamber of Commerce Director Beverly Miller.
She’s been edged out in recent years by NASCAR driver Erik Jones. The 26-year-old is in his seventh season of racing and visited his hometown in March, when his foundation gave a book vending machine to Byron Elementary School.
Miller is hopeful that this year’s Memorial Day events will lead to some resurgence of interest in Tower and her legacy.
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