Iowa in the Great War, IAGenWeb Special Project






A Narrative History of The People of Iowa


JOHN MacVICAR at the time of his death was serving as mayor of the City of Des Moines. At different times over a period of thirty years having acted in a similar capacity, his long experience made him an authority on municipal government, and he was so recognized not only in Iowa but over the nation. He was active in Des Moines politics for over forty years, and his time and energies were generously given to the community, frequently at the sacrifice of important personal business interests.

John MacVicar was born at Galt, Ontario, Canada, July 4, 1859, the youngest of the seven children of John and Mary (McEwen) MacVicar. His parents were natives of Scotland and were Scotch Presbyterians. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Guelph, Ontario, and when he was nine years of age they established a new home at Erie, Pennsylvania. There John MacVicar attended the public schools until he was thirteen. After the death of his mother he went to work to support himself, selling newspapers and acting as errand boy, during which time he attended night school.

The Scotch characteristics of industry, thrift and perseverance enabled him to see opportunities for advancement where the average boy would have discovered nothing but an endless routine. In the best sense of the word, Mr. MacVicar was an educated man. His mental growth never stopped, and from his varied contacts with men and affairs his abilities were adjusted to new needs and increasing demands upon them.

In 1882 he came to Des Moines to accept a responsible position with the large wholesale and retail paper house of Redhead, Wellslager & Company, with whom he remained for ten years. For six years he was in business for himself as a dealer in wallpaper.

The year 1888 saw his entrance into local politics, when he was elected town recorder of North Des Moines. In attempting to correct some of the evils existing in local affairs his course attracted much attention and one of the
results was that in the following year he was elected mayor. In 1890 North Des Moines was annexed to the city and that brought him into a larger sphere of political action. He took a prominent part in the campaign against the high charges maintained by the waterworks company. He was made chairman of several mass meetings and member of committees, and a large share of the success in reducing high water rates was credited to his labors and untiring energy.

It was in 1896 that Mr. MacVicar was elected on the Republican ticket for his first term as mayor of Des Moines. The chief plank in his platform was a demand for the municipal control by the city of public franchises. He also
proposed a reduction of taxation. In 1898 he was reelected and was also chosen for a third term in 1900. For some time he was also a member of the City Council. In 1908, when Des Moines adopted the commission form of government, being one of the first large cities in the Middle West to adopt the plan, he was chosen superintendent of the department of streets and public improvements, and served in that capacity from 1908 to 1912. In 1914 he was again elected mayor of the city or president of the commission. During 1922-24 he was
superintendent of public safety. In 1928 he was again elected mayor of Des Moines, and was the honored incumbent of that office when he died, November 15, 1928.

His practical service in enlarging the body of knowledge known as political science was not confined to Iowa. Mr. MacVicar in 1897 was chosen president of the League of American Municipalities, which had just been  organized. He was the youngest mayor represented in the membership of the League. In 1916 he was again elected president of this organization, which, as all students of municipal history know, has exercised a powerful influence in the direction of municipal efficiency and reform. From 1900 he served as secretary of the League and also acted as editor of the publication American Municipalities. As secretary of the League he spent a year and a half in New York City in research work. He was author of numerous articles on municipal affairs. In 1898 he was elected president of the League of Iowa Municipalities. He was commissioner general of the International Municipal Congress and Exposition at Chicago.

Mr. MacVicar in 1916 attended the Citizens Military Training Camp at Plattsburg, New York, and was commissioned a captain in the Quartermaster's Department, Ninth Regiment, Officers Reserve Corps, February 7, 1917. He was the oldest man to enter the service from Iowa during the World war. He did not receive an overseas assignment, but was called to active duty as assistant quartermaster at Fort Douglas, Salt Lake City, Utah, May 8, 1917. He was mayor of Des Moines when war was declared. After the city was designated as the site of Camp Dodge, with thousands of recruits coming from all over the Middle West, and with other extraordinary problems confronting the city government, it was necessary for the welfare of the community that the mayor should be at hand. At the request of the Citizens Committee he returned to complete his term
and at the same time perform his military duties. In handling the problems of wartime conditions Mr. MacVicar earned the lasting gratitude of the people of the city and the state at large. At the expiration of his term of office
he was assigned to military duty at Fort Sam Houston, where he remained until after the armistice, being honorably discharged March 6, 1919.

Mr. MacVicar was a staunch Republican. He was a member of the American Legion, the Des Moines and Grant Clubs, was affiliated with the Masonic fraternity and was a member of the Methodist Church. He was married in 1884 to Miss Netie Nash. Her father, Rev. John A. Nash, was a pioneer Baptist minister of Des Moines and the founder of Des Moines College. Mr. MacVicar is survived by his wife and two of their four children, Marjorie, Mrs. Locke Macomber, and John MacVicar, Jr.


~ source: A Narrative History of The People of Iowa with SPECIAL TREATMENT OF THEIR CHIEF ENTERPRISES IN EDUCATION, RELIGION, VALOR, INDUSTRY, BUSINESS, ETC., by EDGAR RUBEY HARLAN, LL. B., A. M. Curator of the Historical, Memorial and Art Department of Iowa Volume IV THE AMERICAN HISTORICAL SOCIETY, Inc. Chicago and New York. 1931
~ transcribe by Debbie Clough Gerischer for the Great War