The life story of a man like Rev. John Walker Powell, pioneer preacher, “reads like a romance,” suggested the author of his obituary in the Mankato Review in July 1904.
Born in Indiana in 1822, growing up with little opportunity for a formal education, he read especially Methodist theology and general history. The Bible was his principal textbook.
Powell joined the Indiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1845, serving eight appointments in 10 years. In 1855, Powell and his family moved to Spring Island, located on the south side of the Blue Earth River in South Bend Township.
When the Minnesota Conference of the Methodist Church was formed in 1856, he was appointed to the Mankato charge as its first pastor (now Centenary United Methodist Church). The life of a frontier preacher was many and short appointments, and over the next 39 years, Powell formed or rejuvenated 25 congregations, including Eagle Lake and Blue Earth City.
Powell was known to remark that when he first came to Minnesota his circuit was Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. However most of his time was spent in the southern conference of the state.
A circuit riding preacher meant living in the most central town and traveling the territory 15 to 20 miles around it. Powell’s wife and their children moved with him whenever he needed to travel far from Spring Island.
Powell had a reputation for never complaining about his appointments, although they were often struggling congregations. When sent to Tracy in 1880, he found neither a church building nor a parsonage, so he built a simple house himself that saw him and his family through an especially hard winter.
In the two years he was at Tracy, a church building was erected as well. During that snowy winter, he also preached weekly at Walnut Grove, walking the 11 miles. He remembered that he used the telegraph wires to steady himself from the wind as he walked on the high drifts.
Riding a circuit meant the preacher often needed to board far from home, and the family entertaining him would wish to serve their best, usually chicken. Powell once quipped that he had eaten so much chicken that he could even feel the pin feathers at times.
Because of his powerful voice, both for preaching and singing, Powell was in demand for camp meetings. It is claimed he could be heard for two miles when he preached at the Minneopa camping grounds meetings.
Perhaps Powell is best remembered as the founder of the community of Shelbyville (named for Shelby, Indiana, where he was born). He laid out the town site along the Blue Earth River, south of present-day Amboy, in 1856. One block was designated for the construction of a Methodist church. Not only did Powell hold the first religious service in the town, in 1856, he built its first store and served as its first postmaster.
Powell was only in Shelbyville for a brief time. The town grew until 1879, when the railroad was routed through the new town of Amboy. Shelbyville’s post office remained open until 1881.
In 1894, when the family was living in Delano, Mrs. Powell was thrown from a buggy and died.
After 50 years of traveling and preaching, Powell retired to his farm in Spring Island in 1895. At his retirement, the ministers of the conference raised $400 to pay off the mortgage on the farm.
The retired church planter went into the berry business, raising 3,500 bushels of black raspberries. He also made plans to also raise ginseng.
Powell often walked from his farm to church in Mankato or for breakfast with his son. He continued to preach almost until the day of his death, often traveling distances to do so. For example, on Oct. 23, 1899, Powel traveled to Blue Earth to preach at a funeral. He walked to the train station at Minneopa, wading the river. Returning to Minneopa by 10 that evening, he stayed until morning when he again waded the river, rode to Good Thunder to preach at 10:30 a.m. and was home by 6 p.m.
On July 22, 1904, Powell suffered a stroke. The day of his stroke he had mended a harness and patched a gate and in the evening had milked his cow. He died the following day.
He is buried in Glenwood Cemetery.
His obituary, published in the Mankato Review, concluded with this accolade: “The brightest point in his life is his spotless reputation. There was never the shadow or a whisper against him, and he had the name of being one of the purest minded, most whole souled Christian men in Minnesota.”