Richard W. Sears at his desk as president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Chicago; from a 1909 catalog stereoscopic view.
Richard W. Sears at his desk as president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Chicago; from a 1909 catalog stereoscopic view.
Who knew his dreams of wealth would one day blossom through the talents of his son instead? That's the story of J.W. Sears.

Born of English descent, Sears grew up in New York State. He served in the Civil War, a conflict he strongly believed was caused by politicians who could not settle their differences (reminiscent of today?) and we're told he suffered a leg wound, which earned him an early discharge.

Sears settled in the village of Stewartville and established a blacksmith shop in the 1860s. He met and married Eliza Burton, daughter of a High Forest pioneer. The Stewartville Historical Society now maintains their home at 305 North Main Street, located next to the shop, as an historic site and museum.

A son, Richard Warren, was born in 1863 and his education commenced when he began school in a log building on the south edge of town. School was in session only three months in the summer and three months in the winter.

J.W., restlessly looking to better his business, moved his family to Spring Valley in 1869 to buy a blacksmith shop from B.F. Farmer. It was located behind the hotel in the "old stone building" with O.W. Moore's wagon and carriage "factory" upstairs. He soon purchased a lot for $50 at 216 North Hudson Avenue where his family lived in a makeshift building while the substantial brick dwelling was built.

Our local newspaper, the Western Progress, noted in 1872: "...the residences of J.W. Sears and W.R. Ewing are growing ornaments to the place." By this time the family had grown with the addition of two little girls, Eva and Kate.

The Southern Minnesota Railroad had come through from La Crescent in 1870 and young Richard was fascinated by the daily train traffic. As years passed, he hung around the depot and became intrigued with the telegraph. At the Methodist Church Museum today, one can see a homemade telegraph keyboard that historian John Halbkat claimed was used for practice by his brothers and Richard Sears.

The folk of Spring Valley were very proud of the educational opportunities afforded their youngsters - they had built a large brick school on the hill overlooking downtown. In December 1872, the newspaper carried news of students' progress, and Dick Sears was among those on the 99 percent on a scale of l00, so we know he was a good student indeed. His circle of friends included the George Wilder kids of Steve, Frank and Clara, Joe Thayer, and many others.

Just down the road, according to the 1875 school census, lived the James Wilder family. Dick knew their son Almanzo, who became the subject of the book, "Farmer Boy," by Laura Ingalls Wilder. When Almanzo, brother Royal and sister Eliza Jane went to Dakota Territory to homestead in 1879, Almanzo met and married Laura Ingalls.

While the James Sears family lived in Spring Valley from 1863 to 1877, great progress was recorded in town history. In the upper west block on Broadway, Ezra Allard raised the three-story Allard Opera House on the corner of Jefferson. The spacious hall on the third floor was often rented for traveling companies, musical entertainments, and other social events. At the demand of the state fire marshal, the third floor was declared a firetrap and removed about 1900.

On the south end of that block, Cal Taylor erected a fine brick building with a tailor shop upstairs, later occupied by Mike Molstad's general store from 1872 to 1939. The outstanding Battle Ax Plug Tobacco sign (recently restored) has been on the south wall since before 1900.

Hans Andersen, a Danish immigrant, came to town to open a lumberyard, advertising himself as a contractor and builder. His first and most impressive project was the magnificent Methodist-Episcopal Church on West Courtland. With its Victorian-Gothic architecture, the Griselle style windows imported from England, and its bell-tower spire, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, and is maintained by the Spring Valley Historical Society as an historic site and museum.

Andersen then constructed a brick church on West High Street for the Catholic parish. A few years later he built the famed Andersen Opera House, but that's another story. W.R. Ewing was a busy entrepreneur - he tore down an old hotel on South Broadway and erected a new one, claimed to be the finest hotel on the Southern Minnesota rail line. As an adjunct to that business, he operated a busy livery stable across the street and built his lovely home across that corner. The latter became the historical society's Pioneer Home Museum for over 25 years.

Not to be outdone by Allard, Willard Allen constructed a large hall south of the railroad tracks over on Section Avenue. His family lived in part of the building and the rest was rented for meetings, church services and other events. At one time it was used for a business college, and later served as the Crescent Hotel. Presently a cheese factory occupies the site.

The Hart Hotel on Jefferson Street was a stagecoach stop from Decorah with a pump and watering trough out front for thirsty horses, drivers and passengers. Emilus Parsons built the two-story Stone Block on lower Broadway, renting space on both floors for retail and offices, but soon the Masonic Lodge claimed the upper story for their regular meetings. On the southeast corner of town was the impressive two-story Whitman & Brown Planing Mill with the Iron Star Foundry next door. These firms produced any number of wood and iron implements and furnishings, including school desks.

Two doctors were of particular interest. An unusual but warmly loved person was Dr. Isabel Albro, who made house calls on horseback. She had received medical training out east and was granted her license to practice in Fillmore County in 1862. Dr. Alvah Whitman opened one of his office rooms as a public library and was pleased to offer reading material to the public, long before the advent of the Carnegie Library here in 1904.

James Sears was active in community affairs, faithfully attending council meetings and deeply interested in local events, particularly the formation of the Driving Park Assoc. However, in 1875, "gold fever" struck the country. Newspapers carried accounts of gold strikes in the Black Hills and an article in the local paper stated, "Some of the staid and sober citizens of our place are getting enthusiastic and before long may have picks and pans on their shoulders."

Sears sold his blacksmith shop in 1876 to C.F. Kumm, then tried his hand at a bakery and confectionary business, but soon sold to W.W. Washburn. Yes, Sears indeed caught the fever, and in the spring of 1877, he and three friends headed west. Within a few months they had returned, vocal about the "big fraud" and telling there was little gold to be found on a paying basis, and the settlements were crawling with seekers coming and going. Later that summer, the Sears family sold their lovely home to J.S. Lee and moved north. James Sears died in 1893; he and his family are buried in a Minneapolis cemetery.

On the other hand, Dick Sears realized his father's dream of fame and fortune. He began work as a telegrapher in railroad depots; then set up the R.W. Sears Watch Co. in Minneapolis; and began a catalog mail order business, which meant a move to Chicago. He was founder of Sears Roebuck Co., which became the largest catalog company in the world. He died at age 50 due to ill health, probably working himself to death, but worth over $25 million. But again, that's another story!