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John M. Spicer, Spicer Founder

John Mason Spicer was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1841. His father was Swiss, and his mother was Irish. In 1852 his father moved the family to Illinois. John was the only son in a family of nine children and received a limited formal education. He began working as a clerk in a grocery store but soon took a job as a clerk in a general merchandising firm. The firm transferred him to its St. Paul store in 1860. He accepted a similar job with a rival firm, Ingersoll and Company, the following year. A trip to Mandan, North Dakota, by oxcart prior to the Indian outbreak in 1862 gave him an appreciation of the unsettled land to the west.

While in St. Paul, John became acquainted with a number of prominent individuals including Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota's territorial governor; Henry H. Sibley, first state governor; and James J. Hill, who later became president of the Great Northern Railroad. When Ingersoll and Company suggested taking Spicer in as a partner and manager in a new store they were establishing in Belle Plaine, he quickly accepted. It was here that he met and married Frances Deming.

While in Belle Plaine, he and two companions made a trip to the western part of the state during the winter of 1870-1871. He liked what he saw and decided to move to Willmar, arriving in the spring of 1871, with his family following shortly thereafter. Here he met Andrew Larson, and together they established a general merchandise-farm implement partnership under the name of Spicer and Larson. The business was successful, and Spicer and Larson prospered.

Recognizing the expanding need for banking services in the growing community, Spicer and Larson, together with three other investors, organized the Kandiyohi County Bank in 1879. Spicer became the first president of the bank and held this position until 1884, when Andrew Larson assumed the presidency. This venture led to an interest in real estate. Spicer and Larson, again with three other investors, formed the Central Land Company in 1882 for the purpose of buying, owning, improving, selling, and dealing in lands.

In 1882 a movement was begun to persuade the Northern Pacific Railroad to construct a branch line from north to south through Kandiyohi County. John Spicer was a strong advocate of the idea and was active in distributing circulars and enlisting the support of prominent men. The economic advantages of a north/south rail line connecting Willmar with the port facilities of Duluth and the agricultural areas to the southwest were persuasive. A number of local investors formed the Lake Superior, Willmar and Dakota Railroad Company in 1883 and elected John Spicer president. The corporation raised $1,250,000. An additional $65,000 was supplied by a county bond referendum on the condition that the railroad be built within a certain time period along the route designated. John Spicer took charge of the construction of the new line. Supported in this effort by James J. Hill, who by then had become general manager of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad, the new line from St. Cloud to Willmar was completed in 1886.

Spicer and Larson had acquired the Columbia townsite and adjacent lands in 1876. Spicer purchased Larson's interest in 1882 and platted the village of Spicer in 1886.

The Willmar and Sioux Falls Railway Company, founded and headed by Spicer and financed locally, was incorporated in 1886. The company completed the line from Willmar to Sioux Falls late in 1888. The company purchased four smaller local lines before being sold to the Great Northern Railway in 1907.

John Spicer was president and principal owner of the Willmar and Sioux Falls Townsite Company, which platted and developed townsites along the Willmar and Sioux Falls line. He named the villages of Raymond, Russell, and Ruthton after his children. His company owned property, including quarries and other valuable businesses, in all the towns along the line.

Another firm, the Spicer Land Company, was incorporated in 1899. The closely held family firm was involved in real estate investment and development. The company owned and developed thousands of acres of farmland in Kandiyohi County. John Spicer was at one time the county's largest landowner. An early biographer reported that he "has probably done more to aid in the settlement and development of Kandiyohi County than any other man."

John Spicer's energy during this period was not limited to business. He took an active interest in educational and political affairs. He served as president of the Willmar Board of Education in 1878, as Willmar alderman in 1880, and as president (mayor) of the village of Willmar in 1881 and 1893. He was also one of the most prominent Minnesota members of the Democratic party and served as delegate to the national convention in 1884 and again in 1888. In 1892 he was mentioned in connection with a congressional seat but refused to run.

This picture is looking southward to the Spicer area.

The village of Spicer was named after J. M. Spicer by Jim Hill, although John much preferred the name "Medayto," the Dakota name for Green Lake. With the advent of train service, the village grew, and Green Lake quickly developed into a well-known tourist area. The lake was served by excursion trains from Willmar, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, St. Cloud, and the Twin Cities. Steam launches ferried tourists around the lake. A number of resort hotels were established. Summer homes were built along the lakeshore as tourists elected to become seasonal residents.

The picture one obtains in reading about J. M. Spicer is that of a hard-working, energetic, conscientious, self-made man. One has only to look at the large number of enterprises which he inaugurated and successfully nurtured to completion to recognize that he must have been a man of intelligence and extraordinary insight. His dedication to public service and his contributions to the growth of the community speak well of him. Throughout his life he carried with him a love of nature and the land. The focus of his love was the area around Green Lake.

J. M. Spicer purchased three-quarters of a mile of lakeshore on the southeast side of Green Lake from the trustees of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway Company in late 1885. Here he built Medayto Farm. In about 1893 he built his summer home, now known as the Spicer Castle. In 1896 he purchased from Louis Larson the meadow and woods south of Lake Avenue, owned now by Green Lake Bible Camp. Spicer owned this land for 22 years.

From 1913 to 1917 Spicer began to sell some of his land. In the years that followed, J. M. Spicer passed the remaining land through the Meadow Land Company and the Spicer Land Company, in which he held a controlling interest. He died and was buried in Spicer in 1928. The property which is now part of the Bible camp was deeded to Ruth Spicer Kelsey, one of Spicer's daughters, in 1927, a year prior to his death.

(The three accounts above appear in Thomas J. H. Bonde, "Early History of Green Lake Lutheran Bible Camp," August 1990, and is used by permission.)