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MacVicar, John
(July 4, 1859–November 15, 1928)

–progressive mayor of Des Moines—was born in Galt, Ontario. His parents, John and Mary (McEwan) MacVicar, were natives of Scotland. The family eventually settled in Erie, Pennsylvania, where MacVicar went to school and later worked for a mercantile house. In 1882 MacVicar moved to Des Moines, where he became a manager at Redhead, Norton, Lathrop & Co., a large wallpaper company. By 1893 MacVicar had opened his own wallpaper business, John MacVicar Co.

    On June 14, 1884, MacVicar married Nettie Nash, and the couple had four children: Mary, Marjorie, John Jr., and Dorothy.

    MacVicar soon developed an interest in local politics. He was elected town recorder of North Des Moines in 1888 and a year later became mayor. In the 1890s North Des Moines, like a number of other small towns in Polk County, was annexed to the city of Des Moines. MacVicar, a Republican, was first elected mayor of Des Moines in 1896. Often touted as the "people's mayor," he was reelected in 1898, 1900, and 1928. He later served on the city council.

    MacVicar was a leader in progressive governmental reform and a strong proponent of the commission form of city government. Due in part to his support of the idea and his popularity, Des Moines became the first city of its size to adopt the idea. From 1908 to 1912 MacVicar, as a member of the city council, was also superintendent of the Department of Streets and Public Improvements. It was through his efforts that the municipality bought the waterworks.

    Reputedly something of an expert on municipal government, MacVicar wrote extensively on the topic for numerous publications. He was twice elected president of the League of American Municipalities, an influential urban reform organization.

    In 1916 MacVicar was one of thousands of businessmen and community leaders who volunteered for a six-week civilian military training program held at the Plattsburg Training Camp in New York. After the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, MacVicar, at the age of 58, was assigned to active duty as an assistant to the quartermaster at Fort Douglas, Utah. He was honorably discharged in May 1919.

    MacVicar lived and worked in Des Moines until his death on November 15, 1928, while serving his fourth term as mayor. He was buried in Des Moines' historic Woodland Cemetery.

    MacVicar's son, John Jr. (1891-1950), followed his father into municipal politics. He served as mayor from 1942 to 1948 and was a longtime street superintendent. Together, the father and son held municipal offices, at intervals, over a period of more than 50 years. In 1963 the Des Moines City Council unofficially named I-235 through Des Moines the John MacVicar Freeway to honor the contributions of father and son.
Sources The Papers of John MacVicar are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. A tribute to both John MacVicar and John MacVicar Jr. is in the Des Moines Register, 12/28/1947. See also Who's Who in Des Moines (1929).
Contributor: Patrice K. Beam