O. J. Rea

(March 7, 1862-June 8, 1940)

This page is devoted to my great-grandfather, Orvin James Rea, who was a prominent businessman in the small Southwestern Minnesota town of Tracy.

O. J.'s father, James A. Rea, born in 1827 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, moved to the Akron, Ohio area sometime around the late 1840s. Here he met Lucinda Barbour, and the two were married. In 1853, Lela, the first of their seven children, was born. It was during the 1850s that the Reas settled in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In 1855, their eldest son, Alfred, was born, followed, two years later, by a second daughter, Lulilia. By 1860, James had become a hotel keeper in Oshkosh, and another son, Merchant, had been born.

On March 5, 1865, James A. Rea was made a lieutenant in Company F, 46th Regiment of the Wisconsin Infantry, and was sent, on a troop train, to Virginia. He never saw battle, though, and was sent right back to Wisconsin with his regiment, where they were discharged of their duty on April 5, 1865.

According to the 1870 census, the Reas' hotel had, by then, become rather prosperous and among it's several residents were fourteen domestic servants (Ann Connor, 18, from Wisconsin; Elizabeth Kelly, 30, Ireland; Bertha Kisler, 18, Prussia; Mary Murphy, 20, Wisconsin; Margaret ?, 19, Wisconsin; Lizzie Neary, 16, Wisconsin; Angeline Pitts, 58, New York; Eveline Rice, 17, Wisconsin; Aynes Shekey, 18, Wisconsin; Gertrude Palmer, 16, Denmark; Anna Blinkney, 19, Prussia; Sara Murphy, 20, Wisconsin; Tena D. Ammson, 21, Denmark; and Marcia Oved, 22, of Denmark),In addition to these, there were three porters (Adam Warner, 25, Wisconsin; Giddiny Young, 23, Wisconsin; and James Hanigan, 25, from England). The guests, at that time, included Edmond C. Atkinson, 31, a community college teacher from Maine; an unemployed 82-year-old man from Virginia named John Barber (possibly Lucinda Rea's father, who was born c. 1791 in Maryland), Robert H. Burmslin, 24, a store clerk from Prussia; James Byrne, 25, an Irish-born lawyer; Horace Bedunt, 28, a tinner (tinsmith) from New York; William L. Church, 22, a railroad baggageman from New York; Henry C. Ferguson, 23, a shoe salesman from Maine; Frank Follet, 31, a lumber clerk from Wisconsin; Emmet Ford, 18, a shoe store clerk from New York; William Galloway, 60, a brick mason from New York; Martin Halman, 30, railroad baggageman from Ireland; Gregory Flynn, 38, an auctioneer from Ireland; John A. Millan, 37, a lumberman from New York; Michael O'Rourke, 25, a lumberman from New York; Oilver F. Swift, 30, a grocer from Ireland; Henry Swab, 25, a bar keeper from Prussia; Charles Schriver, 30, a bank clerk from Prussia; Melvin Thomas, 38, a lumberman from Maine; Aaron B. Wright, 51, a physician from Pennsylvania; Charles B. Waterhouse, 28, a bus driver [horse drawn] from New York; James A. Lowell, 21, a shoe store clerk from Canada, and Amos Arnold, 25, a railroad brakeman from Illinois.

In addition to the many residents of the Reas' hotel was Orvin James Rea, then 8 years old (even though the census has him down as "Orville" and at 7 years of age, on June 10th when he would have been 8 on March 7th of that year). Later in 1870, the Reas moved to Sparta, Wisconsin, where they opened another hotel. Why this occurred is not known, and neither is their reason for relocating again, in 1877, to Marshall, in Lyon County, Minnesota.

In June of 1880, the census tells us that James A. Rea had changed occupations after moving to Minnesota, and was now a miller. The Reas' second eldest son, Merchant, who went by "Merch", was an apprentice harness maker and 20 years old by now. O. J. was now a young man of 18 (though, again, the census reports his age as being a year younger than it should have been at this time), and was already an apprentice printer, well on his way down the path that would lead him to his main career.

In 1885, as a young man of 23, O. J. left home and moved to nearby Tracy, where he would become one of that town's leading citizens. Three years later, he married Clara Isabel Bates, the second of the two daughters of Allen Bates and Mary C. Wheelock. The Bates family had come from Dudley, Massachusetts in 1875, had returned to Massachusetts for a time, and moved back to Tracy again in 1880.

The marriage of O. J. Rea and Clara bates produced six children: Elgin, Nona (born in 1890), Doris (born in 1895), Lois, Noel (my grandfather; born in 1900), and Leon (born in 1905). Things were looking good for the Reas, and for the Bates's, as well. Clara's father opened a store and restaurant in downtown Tracy in 1887. Tragedy would strike, however, four years later, when the downtown fire of 1891 claimed every building within a one block area, including Allen Bates' store on Front Street. It was a total loss, but Allen rebuilt the store and sold it in 1904, retiring at 59.

The oldest newspaper in Tracy was the Tracy Republican-Trumpet, founded prior to 1880 by W. D. Kutchlin as the Tracy Gazette. The paper was later purchased by W. M. Todd, who then sold it, in 1894 to O. J. Rea and H. C. Buckingham, who changed the name to the Tracy Weekly Herald. O. J. was now 32, and had been a reporter and writer for several years. Having been elected as an alderman to the first ward of the newly incorporated City of Tracy, in 1893, O. J. Rea was fast becoming a successful businessman and a respected member of the community. Allen Bates had been elected as an alderman to the second ward at the same time. On August 3rd, 1897, O. J. Rea was elected President of the 1st Common Council of the City of Tracy.

At 46, in 1908, owning several buildings in downtown Tracy, as well as the city's only newspaper, O. J. bought an interest in the newly incorporated Houston Pen Company, the first company to manufacture fountain pens, and he became its Vice President. In 1910, the company was cited as one of the four industries to have most benefitted Tracy. The company's building would barely escape destruction, though, in the fire of July 6, 1911.

O. J.'s business interests continued to grow as he became President of the newly formed Tracy Savings & Loan in 1910. In 1911, in order to keep up with increasing demand for it's products, the Houston Pen Company was faced with the need to expand its facilities. Other cities offered to finance the expansion, but with the stipulation that the growing company would move its facilities to the city offering the financial aid. Although O. J. tried to compromise so the Houston Pen Company might remain in Tracy, it was eventually decided that the company would be moved to Sioux City, Iowa, and so Tracy lost one of its major enterprises in 1912.

By 1918, many young men from Tracy had lost their lives in muddy trenches on the battlefields of France. O. J., fearful of losing his son, Elgin, had made the young man President and publisher of the Tracy Weekly Herald in 1914, and O. J. himself became Postmaster of Tracy. Elgin was beginning to show signs of being as good a businessman as his father, when his life was cut tragically short on November 8th by the great influenza pandemic of 1918. The flu had circled the earth in only ten months, killing millions worldwide. O. J. was shattered by the loss and sold the Herald to J. T. Johnsrud. Johnsrud wasn't half the businessman that Elgin had been, though, and failed to make a profit from the paper. O. J. arranged for J. D. Gilpin, the publisher of the competing Tracy Headlight, to assume Johnsrud's debts, and so ownership of the Tracy Weekly Herald passed to J. D. Gilpin, who changed its name to the Tracy Headlight-Herald, which it is still called today.

As though the loss of Elgin hadn't been enough, O. J.'s son, Leon, the "baby" of the family, had taken off for Chicago, where he had fallen in with the wrong crowd and was living the life of a gangster. At 28, he was murdered by none other than Al Capone.

At 60, in 1922, O. J. Rea retired from his position as Postmaster and he and Clara moved to sunny Lakeland, Florida. Here, O. J. and Clara lived out the remainder of their lives, far from the harsh cold of the Minnesota winters. On Saturday, June 8, 1940, O. J. Rea died. He was buried in Tracy Cemetery, and on December 27, 1950, Clara joined him in death. The two lay side-by-side in Tracy Cemetery today, with their son Elgin at their feet.

Noel Bates Rea went on to become a postal service employee in Tracy. He married Luella Larson on August 17, 1920, after a surprise wedding announcement. The couple had three children: Loren, June, and my father, Russell Allen Rea.

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