How Lester Spicer preserved area history

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 29, 2006

By Ed Shannon , Tribune feature writer

“His store brought him a living, but his community brought him a life,” was the commentary a Tribune writer made in an article written in 1961 about a local pharmacist named Lester Spicer.

However, there have been two men named Lester Spicer who once lived in Albert Lea.

The first was Lester Vandercook Spicer who came to Freeborn County with his family in 1871 from Beaver Dam, Wis. He became both a farmer and a druggist (now more correctly known as a pharmacist). In 1872 he went into partnership with Dr. A. C. Wedge to operate Spicer’s Corner Drug Store. He died on Nov. 29, 1884, on his farm near the present fairgrounds after an encounter with an angry bull.

What was once called the Spicer Farm was a 240-acre place located to the east of what’s now North Bridge Avenue and the Freeborn County Fairgrounds. Through the years parcels of this farm were sold off as the city expanded in that neighborhood. By the early 1960s the last part became what’s now the Ridgewood Park Addition.

The second person with this name was a son, Lester Wedge Spicer, was born on this farm on Oct. 20, 1876. The younger Spicer graduated from Albert Lea High School in 1895 in a class of just 10 students, and from the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy in 1897. By 1899, he was a partner in the Barlow and Spicer Drug Store at the corner of South Broadway Avenue and West Clark Street.

The second Lester Spicer, who was known by the nickname of “Spike,” became deeply interested in area history because of his many visits with some the original settlers, plus Civil War and Sioux Uprising veterans of the 1860s. He also became involved in civic affairs, served as a member of the city council, and was a member of several Masonic groups and other organizations.

“Spike” became known as a local historian. He collected various papers and artifacts and became involved in research projects with the Minnesota Historical Society and Library of Congress and Census Bureau in Washington, D.C., the Newberry Library in Chicago, and the Boston Library. All this research was enhanced by mail correspondnence with many people, especially former residents with good memories. In time, Spicer was able to write a series of articles for the Tribune based on the historical aspects of past life in Albert Lea and Freeborn County.

In early 1941 the pharmacist-historical became involved in a special project to somehow save the county’s first newspaper copies from the scrap pile. Those copies of the Southern Minnesota Star, Freeborn County Eagle and Freeborn County Standard were covered with ice after the Jan. 9, 1941, fire at the Trades Publishing Co. Spicer helped to retreive those old newspapers from the basement of the Trades building at the corner of South Washington Avenue and West Main Street. Then the copies were taken to the Albert Lea Fire Department, located at that time in city hall on North Broadway Avenue. Here they were thawed out. Special tissue paper was placed between each page as instructed by the Minnesota Historical Society, and the sheets of old newspapers were restored to readability.

The copies of the city’s first three newspapers were then donated to the Albert Lea Public Library and later microfilmed by the Minnesota Historical Society.

In February 1948 he joined with another area historian, J. E. Murtaugh, Tribune publisher H. Carroll Day, Ralph Wedge and several other residents to organize, the Freeborn County Historical Society. Spicer became the first president of this organization.

He died on Dec. 5, 1961, at the age of 85.

His large legacy of research into the early history of both the city and county is an important part of the papers and photos which are now a part of the library at the Freeborn County Historical Museum.

Today there’s another tangible reminder of this pharmacist-historian. To the east of the Freeborn County Fairgrounds and North Bridge Avenue is a short street which starts as a cul-de-sac. Within a block it intersects with Fairlane Terrace and ends a block further on at Foothills Boulevard. The signs along this two-block-long, mostly east-west street, clearly indicates it’s Spicer Road.

(Contact Ed Shannon at ed.shannon@albertleatribune.com or 379-3438.)