After months of anticipation — and a little skepticism — the Polo Historical Society is the winner of a nationwide contest and the $1,000 check that goes with it.
The check from Reader's Digest arrived on Christmas Eve, confirming that Polo had won the Most Interesting Legend category of the magazine's months-long contest.
"I was at our Christmas Eve service at church when Ed Olsen [a historical society member] came in and said 'our check came today.' Then I knew for sure," said Betty Obendorf, historical society curator.
Obendorf, who writes a weekly column for the Tri-County Press, wrote the winning entry about Henry Spickler, a Polo resident who rode his bicycle around the world more than a century ago.
The topic was dear to Obendorf's heart because Spickler, a neighbor of her family when she was a child, was a very familiar figure to her.
The competition began early in 2012 when the Reader's Digest announced a contest to highlight America's most interesting towns, dangling a prize of $1,000 in each of 11 categories.
The categories included most interesting overall town, parade, event, nickname, scenic view, family, legend, trivia, funny story, character, and landmark.
Polo library director Ellen Finfrock got the ball rolling by entering a story about the library.
She enlisted the help of library assistant Linda Gall who submitted numerous entries.
Since the process involved voting by the public, Finfrock got the word out to the community through the library's weekly column and other articles.
The rest of the community got involved, voting online and submitting articles and photos.
"There were several categories, and we entered every one," Gall said with a chuckle.
By week 4, Polo was leading the competition in the Most Interesting Town category.
In August, Obendorf was notified that the Spickler story was a winner, but she was sworn to secrecy because Readers' Digest wanted to be the one to break the news in its own time and way.
"They told me I couldn't tell anyone until it was published," she said. "I didn't even tell Kenneth [her husband of more than 50 years].
However, when emails came asking for her Social Security number, Obendorf balked.
"No one is getting my Social Security number. I began to think it was a scam," she said.
Emails to Reader's Digest officials didn't shed any light on the issue, and she was ready to forget it. "Then I wrote it all off," Obendorf said.
Finally, during numerous communications with magazine representatives, Obendorf mentioned that the check would be going to the historical society rather than her personally, and the impasse was resolved.
Obendorf's winning story and the information about the winning entry was published in the December issue of the Reader's Digest.
Since then, Obendorf has been hearing from former Polo residents and other interested individuals from all over the country.
"Henry Spickler has really put us on the map again," she said with a laugh.
Spickler was unusual for his time, holding a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he played football for renowned coach Amos Alonzo Stagg.
His interests and abilities were varied. He also wrote the music and words to the "Polo Community Song," which praised the virtues of his hometown.
Obendorf's winning story appears below.
Rev. Henry M. Spickler 1867 – 1955
Some people in Polo, Illinois called him the “local loony,” “crazy” or thought that he had simply “slipped over the edge.”
And yet there were some of us who recognized a unique mind in this interesting person.
Henry Spickler attended and graduated from several colleges, dabbled in vaudeville, was a secretary, stenographer, a Baptist minister, and coached football in Polo.
He kept in excellent physical condition by biking, swimming, and at one time swam across the Rock River 20 times without leaving the water.
On another occasion he swam up the river for two miles without stopping oblivious of the strong current. Perhaps this was preparing him for the greatest challenge of his life.
For a free bicycle the editor of Polo Semi-Weekly Visitor challenged him to ride around the world sending newsletters describing his experiences.
In 1901 Henry and his new bike started out on a 40,000-mile journey around the world visiting 20 countries without a cent in his pocket.
For three years he financed his trip being an acrobat, auto mechanic, bell hop, barber, photographer, palmist, eye doctor, preacher, cattleman, companion, juggler, masseur, poet, and magnetic healer. Family members speculated he departed Polo penniless just to prove it was possible.
This adventure led him to write a book, "Around the World Without A Cent," published in 1922.
He composed music, wrote poetry, and the 1976 Bicentennial History of Ogle County stated, “during his career he appeared in many states giving lectures, sermons, commencement addresses, Chautauqua programs and was an inspiration to many.”
Polo’s newspaper, the Tri-County Press of June 15, 1922 stated, “Spickler helps to put Polo on the map” by singing his composed song of “Polo” to 9,000 high school students across the country when he toured and lectured.
For many years Polo people jokingly renamed his book, “Around the World Without Sense.”