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Many tales and legends exist about this man who fascinated all who knew him, or knew of him. Several of Wyoming's local historians and journalists have written often about ‟Old Sykes”. Stories have appeared in the Basin (WY) Republican Rustler (October 3, 1941); a book published by Big Mountain Press, Denver, CO in 1966 titled Pioneers of the Big Horn; True Stories of the Yellowtail Country by Bill Scott; an article in the Lovell (WY) Chronicle ca 1968 titled Colorful Characters Who Helped Settle This Area; and an article in the Casper (WY) Star Tribune (May 6, 1979) titled Buffalo graze around old cabin. Eventually another book titled Lovell Our Pioneer Heritage, by Rosa Vida Bischoff Black, was published by Olympus Publishing Co., Salt Lake City, UT, in 1984. The chapter on Frank Sykes in this book is largely a compilation of the stories from each of the other sources, but Mrs. Black included several items not previously recorded, and a picture of Sykes. Now it's my turn to write about him.
I first became aware of this interesting character in 1988 while researching my grandmother's parents, Victor (direct descendant of Richard and Phebe Sikes) and Jessie Mary Elgie Sykes, who were among the first to settle in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming in the 1890s. Lilas Skovgard was a historian and researcher who lived in Basin, WY. We got to know each other when I sent a query to the local newspaper requesting my grandmother's obituary. Lilas was the lady who responded and became interested in my search for family information. She frequently sent me items she would find in the old newspapers. One day a package arrived with a note from Lilas. It contained many articles and photocopies from the items mentioned above, on Old Frank Sykes, as well as some photographs she had found for me. Lilas said she didn't know if Old Frank was a part of my family or not, but she rightfully thought I would like to have this information.
I studied the articles and stories and extracted all the facts that could be documented. The 1900 census recorded E. F. Sykes and gave the month and year of his birth as Jan 1854, age 46, and the place of birth was Michigan. He was enumerated as a widower, a farmer who could read, write and speak English and who owned his farm free of mortgage. In 1910, the census recorded E. Frank Sykes as a widower born in Michigan with his father being born in Wisconsin and his mother being born in Illinois. He was a 56 year old Stock Ranchman who worked on his own accord and could read and write and owned his farm free of mortgage. In 1920 Franks's age was listed as 65 and only one thing had changed in the enumeration – the birth place of his father was recorded as Pennsylvania. A search of earlier census years, attempting to locate Frank as a young man with his family in Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania was not successful. This would lend credit to Mrs. Black's statement in her work that Frank came to Wyoming from Canada.
It was believed by those who knew him, that Frank Sykes was raised by the Indians in the upper Michigan country. Mrs. Black wrote, ‟Sykes was a ‛squaw man.' His first Indian wife died in childbirth. The second is believed to have been killed while defending her husband against an Indian brave.” He was described in one account as a big heavy muscled man always wearing buckskin clothes, a handlebar moustache and an old .45 dangling at this hip. He had only one eye the other being lost when a thorn became imbedded in it. Mrs. Black wrote, ‟Sykes was a true frontiersman, short, and powerfully built, who tanned skins for clothing, was never without his six-gun, and was wary of strangers.” She later describes the gun as a single action Colt 44.
The chapter on Frank Sykes in the Pioneers of the Big Horn was written with the personal knowledge of the author and supplemented with information provided by Bess Strong Tillett. Mrs. Tillett was seventy-five and still residing in her original homestead on the head of Crooked Creek at the time of publication of this book. Her homestead was ‟some five or six miles from the old Sykes place. When she was in her teens, she took the job of delivering the mail in that area and in this capacity, she came to know Frank Sykes as well as anyone ever would. When leaving his mail she would often find plums and other goodies with a note saying, ‟For Mail Boy, You eat-um. Heap good.”
Sykes first came into Wyoming in 1875 where he built a cabin in the Paintrock area which lies a few miles east of Greybull and is now the Medicine Lodge State Archaeological Site. A story in the Basin Republican Rustler relates, ‟In the winter of 1882 there were 200 lodges of the Crow Indians camped on Medicine Lodge Creek spending the winter hunting and trapping. They were camped on a ranch then owned by a man named Frank Sykes. He came in here in 1875 and built his cabin.” This story, from the 1941 Basin Republican Rustler stated Sykes was an old man, didn't have much to do with anyone, but was a good friend if he liked you. Sykes would have been 28 years old at that time. The story goes on to describe Sykes as a powerful man with this illustration. ‟At the Lum Williams' ranch one of the saddle horses died. Having no way to move the animal from the barn, we were wondering what to do when Sykes came along and offered to pull it out of the barn. We laughed and Sykes picked up a rope, put it around his neck and under his arm, got down on his hands and knees and pulled the horse from the barn.”
Bill Scott wrote, ‟When Sykes and his wife first showed up in the Crooked Creek country they squatted on a place north of Crooked Creek, and right alongside the road that now leads into the Dryhead country. They were very anti-social and had no close friends.” He goes on to tell that the first knowledge of Sykes was when he sold his homestead up in the Paintrock Country. Having decided to sell the property, Sykes let it be known and the word got around to one of the local fellows who decided he would buy it at the asking price. He talked to Sykes about the place and they decided it was a deal. When the fellow wrote a check, Sykes refused to accept it, saying, ‟If you want this place you can have it for gold. I am not trading it for a piece of paper.” The buyer said, ‟Well, of course I don't have that amount of gold but the check is good.” Sykes reply was, ‟If you want this place you can have it for the price we agreed on, but it will be in gold. Also the price is going up at the rate of $50.00 a day for every day that it takes to get the money here.” Well, it ended by the buyer making a hard drive to Basin City, sending a wire to the mint in Denver and paying Sykes $250.00 more for the five days that it required to get the gold from Denver. Scott stated, ‟This is a typical example of the man Sykes.”
After selling his first cabin, Frank married, at age 34, to 16 year old Minnie Forshee in Shell, Johnson County Territory on March 7, 1888 and built a new cabin about 15 miles northeast of Lovell around 1890. This is the location described in the many stories told about Old Frank and in the photos. Mrs. Black wrote, ‟The cabin, built on high ground, afforded protection from visitors, friendly or otherwise, approaching from any direction.” Sykes Mountain, east of the entrance to Horseshoe Bend, on the Big Horn river, takes its name from this early settler. It was reported that during the time Bess Strong Tillett was delivering mail, she noted Frank was living alone and two graves were subsequently found, side by side, just outside the cabin. Mrs. Sykes apparently gave birth to a baby boy who died not long after and she also died a few days later in 1894. Her husband buried them without telling anyone of the deaths. Because of their fear of the man, no one ever questioned Sykes about the deaths. When Mrs. Tillett had her first son, Sykes made baby shoes for him out of soft hand-tanned leather.
One day an unnamed man rode up to Sykes' mail box and saw a sign, ‟No visitors today. This is Tanning Day.” When he rode on, he found out why. It seems that when Sykes tanned, he wore no clothes.
Bill Scott first met Frank Sykes in 1913. He wrote, ‟I was clerking in the Kane Mercantile. Kidlike, I had decided that I was a pretty snappy clerk and when old Sykes walked over to the drug section he said, ‛I want a half pound of boric acid and a half pound of tannic acid.' Wanting to impress this old boy I cracked back, ‛Mr. Sykes, do you want those in powder or liquid form?' He leaned his elbows on the counter, looked me squarely in the eye, and said, ‛Young feller, you don't know a hell of a lot about drugs, do you?' Well, that took care of my ego for several days.” (Both of these acids are used in the tanning process.)
The story is told of Jim Kelsey, a friend of Bill Scott, and his encounter with Sykes. One blustery fall day Kelsey was riding, looking for cattle, and came to the Sykes place in the afternoon. He thought he might be able to get a cup of coffee and get warmed up a bit before riding on home. When he rode into the yard he just ground reined his horse at a small doodle of hay there in the yard and went on in the house to get warm. Sykes had the coffee pot on the stove and he was also cooking a batch of potatoes for dinner. He used a big iron skillet and cooked in bear's grease. Kelsey didn't like bear's grease even when it was fresh, and this was rancid. When they sat down, Kelsey decided that all he wanted was coffee, but Sykes shoved a plate in front of him and insisted he have some potatoes. He took a few and when he finished the helping Sykes said, ‟Here, have some more spuds.” ‟No!” Kelsey replied. Whereupon Sykes pushed the skillet toward him with one hand and drew his Colt with the other and growled, ‟Go ahead and finish up these spuds because you are going to eat potatoes just like that horse of yours is eating my hay.” While Kelsey ate potatoes until he was sick, Sykes continued to hold his gun on him. Sykes then returned his gun to the holster as Kelsey staggered out to his horse, mounted and headed for home. This experience destroyed Kelsey's taste for potatoes.
Another legend is told about a neighbor who asked Sykes for some young plum trees to start his own orchard. Sykes said he was welcome to take some from the north side of the plum thicket, but to leave the ones on the other side, as they had been set out by Mrs. Sykes. When the neighbor returned with his wagon to get the trees, Sykes was nowhere to be seen and the man, after taking some shoots from the north side of the thicket, decided the best trees were the forbidden area. He decided he could take some of these as well, thinking Sykes would never know. He dug what he wanted, went home, set them out, and began watering them. Early the next morning Sykes rode into the neighbor's yard, threw down an ax and drew his gun. He ordered the man to pull up every tree and cut it into small pieces. When they were cut up Sykes said, ‟Now hand me that ax and don't ever come onto my place again.”
In each of the accounts of Old Frank Sykes, a common theme is that because of his rugged appearance and his aversion to strangers coupled with his frequent use of his firearms, most people feared the man. None-the-less, he did have friends. It was said that when he ate at the home of a friend he would put his gun in the holster and leave it outside the door until he left.
Mrs. Black, in her account of Old Sykes, related that he had made friends of a few individuals on Crooked Creek. He would visit the Allen Lowe family and later Mrs. C. A. Thompson of Lovell, the former Lunita Lowe, recalled her story of Old Sykes. ‟Sykes liked my brother Walter, who was about 15 at that time. I must have been about 12. He knew us and our horses so we didn't get shot at when we rode up unannounced. He scolded me for walking on his blind side, saying he was afraid he'd tromp on me. He told me not to be afraid of the big stick he carried because that was to keep the rattlesnakes from getting us while he helped us pull watercress.” The children were fascinated by his tales of fighting the Indians and he showed them the notches on his gun for the ones he had killed. Sykes often told Walter of the valuables he had stashed in a cave on his property. He never mentioned gold specifically, but used the word ‛valuables'. He told Lowe he had been paid $50,000 in gold for his Tensleep (Paintrock) property.
Old Frank Sykes died alone in his cabin and was found a few days later, by Mr. Lowe, slumped on his bed with his gun belt hanging on the bed post. Friends and neighbors buried him near his cabin with his wife and baby. After his death people searched the caves for his gold. ‟An old trunk was found along with an 1880 sewing machine (which was still usable in 1982), clothing, a 50-foot horsehair rope, a grubbing hoe, and some letters, but no gold. The trunk contained eight or ten sacks of corn which Sykes had evidently intended to plant. Some of the letters portrayed Sykes as a caring, intelligent man. He had a subscription to the ‟New York Times” and had acted as a guide for several people from England.” Neighbors said Sykes' services as a guide and a tanner of hides were often sought.
Finally in June, 1994, the Lovell Chronicle published a story about the Crooked Creek Bogeyman which was a fabrication devised by Joseph H. NeVille and told to his young son as a means of extracting good behavior from the youngster. The Bogeyman story was based on the many legends of Old Frank Sykes. In this article, Sykes was described once again as ‟a mysterious, buckskin clad, one-eyed, cantankerous loner who appeared or disappeared like ‛a phantom made of shadow stuff.' His attempts at family life had three times left him widowed and without children.”
I have no record of a second or third wife as mentioned in these stories, and if they are buried near his cabin, the graves are not marked. Just who was Old Frank Sykes? I believe he was a man who had a strong sense of right and wrong and was at peace with himself, enjoying the life he chose. But, . . . . who were his parents?