By Starrla Cray
MAYER, DELANO, WINSTED, MN John Mayer’s life was short, but his legacy tracked everywhere the Great Northern Railroad ran including the town that was named after him.
Two of John’s great-grandchildren, Carolyn Heim of White Bear Lake and her brother, Gerald (Jerry) Fignar of Forest Lake, recently visited the small Carver County city, in hopes of discovering more about their heritage.
“It’s a nice town,” Heim said. “We appreciated all the generosity and kindness.”
This was Heim’s second time visiting Mayer, and Fignar’s first.
Fignar’s youngest son has a strong interest in genealogy, so Fignar and his wife, Diane, have been collecting information to help him.
“We’re really hoping to get more information on John Mayer,” Fignar said, adding that anyone who has a story to share can email him at email@example.com.
Prussia to Delano
According to a school paper written by Daniel Mayer, a relative from Arizona, John was born in 1847 in the village of Brinitza, near the city of Tilsit in what was, at that time, Prussia.
John’s obituary states that he came to America in 1869, and worked in Delano for the Great Northern Railway Company, which was laying its tracks through Wright County.
He started as a section hand, but was soon promoted to foreman.
In his early years of railroading, John also married Johanna Klich.
The couple eventually had seven children, including John, Jacob, Louis Sylvester, Francis, Mary, Ann, and Louise.
Heim and Fignar’s grandmother was Louise Catherine Mayer, and their mother was Leona Kathryn Schaffer.
Their great uncle, Leo Schaffer, was a pharmacist in Winsted years ago, at 102 First Street. Winsted’s former mayor, Don Guggemos, was good friends with Leo, Fignar added.
Ties to Mayer, Winsted, Delano, and Buffalo
During their visit to Mayer, Fignar and Heim also visited the towns of Winsted, Delano, and Buffalo.
“That was my first time in any of the towns,” Fignar said.
“Our great aunt and her husband lived in Buffalo,” Heim added. “Each town had some connection with our family.”
The Schaffer family operated a general store in Delano until about 1918, and John Mayer and his family also lived in Delano.
Heim and Fignar were able to see where their homes had been, although the buildings are no longer there.
They also received a tour from Delano Mayor Jon Steinmetz.
“We were really impressed with Delano,” Fignar said. “The town was really alive. We visited in the evening, and people were in the restaurants, and kids were outside playing. It’s such a nice, clean city.”
Heim said it was also fun to see how Mayer had grown since the last time she’d visited, many years ago.
“The people at city hall were accommodating, and told us about the city’s 125th celebration,” Heim said.
A name of honor
Officers of the Great Northern Railway Company named the village Mayer, because John Mayer had been the stationmaster for the area.
According to Daniel Mayer’s paper, John had been friends with James J. Hill, and was a well-respected businessman of high moral character.
In November 1900, John passed away, at age 53. Daniel Mayer wrote an account of John’s death, told by one of his granddaughters, Helen Schaffer Rasmussen.
The day of his death, John was involved in a train accident. He did not die during the accident, and apparently had no visible wounds.
“However, he went straight home after the incident occurred, walked through the door of his home, and, as his wife watched on, sat down in his chair and died,” Daniel Mayer noted.
After John’s death, the three Mayer sons carried on the railroading tradition. The oldest son (also named John) worked for the Great Northern Railroad for 48 years.
Jacob Mayer also had a lengthy railroad career, working as telegrapher, brakeman, freight conductor, passenger conductor, train dispatcher, train master, and receiver.
Louis Mayer raised his family in Havre, MT, and spent 46 years as a Great Northern Railroad employee.
In his obituary in a Montana newspaper, he was considered “the last of a pioneer railroad family.”