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Buena Vista: A Tale of Two Cities

By Cecelia McKeig

Two early settlers stand out in the story of Little Turtle Lake and Buena Vista. They were very different in character. According to various accounts, Joachim “Jimmy” Cyr was a “peppery Frenchman” who likely swore a bit, drank hard liquor, and loved to spin a story or two. John Speelman, on the other hand, was conservative, a more serious man, and dead set against alcohol. He was part of the temperance league, and he also saw to it that Buena Vista had a church early on. Despite their differences, Speelman and Cyr seem to have developed a camaraderie which shifted in character depending on the issue at hand.

Jimmy Cyr- The "Peppery Frenchman"

Jimmy Cyr was born in Minnewaska valley on the Canadian border. He was a woodsman and a trapper, moving across the border comfortably between New Brunswick, Canada and Maine. He married Olive-Leonie Fournier and had four children all born in Maine or Canada between 1877 and 1883.

After the death of his wife, Jimmy Cyr found his way to Crookston where he settled briefly. From there he went to Fosston which was as far as anyone could go by rail if you were headed east toward the central part of Beltrami County. The Fosston trail was difficult but provided a path for those settlers determined to reach new homesteads in this section of Beltrami county. The Fosston trail was used for hauling supplies by the homesteaders primarily between 1896 and 1898.

Cyr chose the most scenic spot; Peterson chose the most productive.

In 1894, Gilbert Peterson and Jimmy Cyr left Little Fraction and moved on to homestead at Little Turtle Lake. According to William Sutherland’s book, “The Early Land Owners. Buena Vista and Turtle Lake,” Cyr chose the most scenic spot; Peterson chose the most productive.

When Jimmy Cyr came to the area, he chose a spot where there were remains of a small Hudson Bay Fur Trading post on Little Turtle Lake. When we look at the site today, we can see that it was an ideal spot to start a town as Irvine Avenue runs north directly through it!

OK, it wasn’t Irvine Avenue until decades later, but his choice of land was near the junction of four important trails, and Irvine Avenue at times is built over the path of one of those trails. Cyr’s Landing was on the northeast end of Little Turtle Lake.

Turtle Lake Hotel built about 1895. Pictures taken at Buena Vista. Peterson, Lottie Peterson and Eva Wells (McKnight).

John Speelman: A Businessman and a Visionary

John Speelman came from Iowa two years later and saw the richness and beauty of the Lake Julia area. He was not a frontiersman, but he was a businessman with a sharp sense for what would work. He was described by Sutherland as a visionary. Cyr and Peterson had been on their homesteads for two years before the lands of the Red Lake Reservation were diminished and opened to homesteaders on May 15, 1896. Their homesteads butted up to the reservation line.

John Speelman, a friend of G. Carson in Bemidji, had scouted out the area and thinking that the best land was between Cyr’s property and Lake Julia, he had his crew build a prefab shack which met all the requirements for homesteading. On the day the reservation line was opened, he moved the prefab building onto the land he had chosen and claimed it for his homestead.

Scarrot’s steamboat on Little Turtle Lake at Cyr’s Landing before 1900.

Jimmy Cyr had an advantage, however, in that he had already been on his homestead for two years. Instead of waiting to fulfill the time required to live on the property before getting a patent, he jumped the gun and paid $200 to speed up the process. Homesteaders were required to build a building with a roof a door and a window and to live on the property for five years in order to acquire a patent. However, there was a clause that if a person had lived on the property for six months and fulfilled the other requirements, he could pay $200 and receive his patent at that point. Once Cyr had acquired his homestead, he platted out a portion of it and named it Little Turtle Lake.

Cyr and Speelman Jostle for Control of Buena Vista

Jimmy Cyr built the first hotel and store, but it was Speelman, always a promoter, who built the best known hotel known as the Summit Hotel. When Speelman’s first hotel burned in 1903, he immediately built a bigger and better one. Although Cyr had the lots platted out for the town as Little Turtle Lake, the name did not stick. When the post office was installed, Speelman urged that it be named Buena Vista after the town in Oregon where his daughter Addie was born.

The second Summit Hotel built in 1907 by J. W. Speelman.

Both men wanted the community to grow and thrive. Jimmy Cyr had the land, but it was John Speelman who promoted it to landowners. Speelman could give land for a church and the school, but because he did not yet have a patent, he could not sell any part of his homestead. Both were leaders in the hard political fight to make Buena Vista the county seat but lost out to Bemidji. Speelman worked diligently to have the railroad come to Buena Vista, but it went instead to Puposky. With these defeats, many other little towns faded away, but in the case of Buena Vista, it was “Location, Location, Location!” in addition to some very committed leadership which allowed it to survive.

Presbyterian Church, Buena Vista, 1904-1908.

Both Visionaries Make a Lasting Mark

Jimmy Cyr was a humble man. He built the first hotel and store, but he did not attempt to run it. When he was offered the office of sheriff, he declined because he thought he did not have the education necessary to do the legal part of the job. When the township was formed, the town fathers suggested naming it Cyr Township, but Jimmy again declined and suggested it be named Turtle Lake Township.

Jimmy Cyr was a humble man. He built the first hotel and store, but he did not attempt to run it. When he was offered the office of sheriff, he declined because he thought he did not have the education necessary to do the legal part of the job.

The town needed a John Speelman to promote it and to envision what it could be. He had been an editor, a businessman, and a community leader in Oregon and again in Verndale, Minnesota. He had a restless spirit and was described as having boundless energy and a fertile mind.

The William Worth family in front of the Buena Vista post Office, ca. 1900. William Arosina, and children Albert, George, Clarence and Lee.

Extensive research has been done on both Little Turtle Lake and Buena Vista by William and Madeline Sutherland, by Steven Hoffbeck, and others but not only has it been researched but the product of that research has been shared by the Dickinson family, and others who found the development of this area fascinating. It reads like a good western novel!

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