Not far from the front entrance to the Byron Cemetery a monument marks the grave of Ellen May Tower, famed Spanish-American war nurse. Miss Tower was the daughter of Captain Samuel S. Tower, a veteran of the Civil War and for sometime the village blacksmith and Mrs. Sarah (Bigelow) Tower.
Ellen May Tower
Ellen May Tower was born (May 8, 1868) and educated in Byron and soon after her graduation from the 10th grade entered the office of Doctor Whealock of Bancroft. For a time she taught school in the Bancroft area, then left to enter nurses' training at Grace Hospital in Detroit. Doctor Sterling of Grace Hospital presented her with her diploma on January 17, 1894 and five years to the very day, he spoke at her funeral in the Opera House at Byron.
When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898 she volunteered for service as a war nurse . Her service began at Point Montauk and during that time it was her good fortune to meet Dennis Donohue, a Detroit newspaperman and Hazen Pingree Jr., son of the Michigan Governor. These men greatly admired the cheerful service she was giving to the sick and wounded men. They understood the uncertainties of war and promised the girl that if anything happened to her she would be brought back to Byron and her friends. She went East and then to Puerto Rico. It was there that Ellen May fell ill contracting the dreaded typhoid fever. Constant work day and night had greatly weakened her resistance. As she had been the first to volunteer for service, she was the first of the five nurses to be stricken. Her father was notified on December 9, 1898 of her death. More than a month later the body of the 28 year old nurse was brought back to Byron. Donohue and Pingree had kept their promise.
A military funeral had been arranged – the third time in history that such a rite had been performed for a woman and the only woman in Michigan to be so honored.
Tower Funeral Procession on Saginaw Street (Jan. 17, 1899)
The funeral party was borne from Detroit in two special cars and from Howell Junction to Byron by a special engine. The party was made up of the remains and flowers, four nurse companions, six members of the women's auxiliary, the father, sisters, an aunt, two cousins, twenty-five members of the Light Guard and company band. Waiting at the Byron depot were members of the Co. G. Thirty-Third Michigan Division from Owosso and the G.A.R. posts of Byron, Durand, Oak Grove and Owosso, besides a huge crowd of bystanders. A hearse pulled by four black horses awaited and the casket was carried by seven men all veterans of the Santiago campaign. The long procession formed at the depot, headed by the Detroit Light Guard, the band, soldiers of the Spanish War, the Owosso Co., a long line of Civil War Veterans, the hearse, carriages of mourners and hundreds of others all passed through the village main street between rows of buggies and blanketed horses on its way to the Opera House.
Tower Funeral Procession at the Byron Opera House (Jan. 17, 1899)
All in the village had quit work for the day. Stores were closed and between 3000-4000 people from the surrounding area and other villages and towns braved the cold wintry day. Tribute and praise was paid to the young nurse, the first of her gender to die in service on a foreign soil, by Rev. Joslin, a Byron minister. Dr. Sterling, Dr. Ruggles and Mr. Donohue offered addresses. From the Opera House the procession wound its way to the cemetery where a brief graveside service was held following taps and the firing of a military salute.
To show their love and respect the people of Byron began contributing money for the erection of a monument in her honor. This monument reveals a young lady, clad in a robe of gray with her long hair flowing down her back and a garland or roses entwines her wrist. The stone built by Parker Monument Works in Owosso at a cost of less than $1,000 while the statuary work was done in New York City. On May 30, 1903 the monument was unveiled and dedicated as throngs again filled the village to hear Dr. Fred Ruggles deliver the address
Ellen May Tower Gravesite
During the Memorial Day week-end of 1989, a Michigan Historical Marker was dedicated to commemorate Ellen May. It is placed in Sesquicentennial Park.