The tornado that changed Rochester

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ROCHESTER, MN — 130 years ago Wednesday, a tornado ripped through Rochester, destroying much of what is now the downtown.

There were deaths that day, but if it was not for the twister, the city would likely not be what it is today.

“It was probably a day much like today. It was hot and muggy and moist and windy,” said Janet Timmerman, Executive Director of the History Center of Olmsted County.

Two storms came through the area that day, but it was the second one that changed southern Minnesota for good.

“To lose that many people out of a small community and have that much devastation, there was a lot of resources that had to be put back in to just rebuilding the city again,” Timmerman said.

If it was not for that twister 130 years ago, the Mayo Clinic as we know it likely would not exist.

“We say Mayo was born in a storm, it was this crisis and the response to that, that led the Franciscan sisters and the Mayo doctors to work together as partners in healing and we’ve grown that model ever since then,” said Matthew Dacy, Director of Heritage Hall inside the Mayo Clinic.

William Mayo is the father of the Mayo brothers, the men who started the Mayo Clinic. He was a well-established physician when the storm struck.

The sisters of St. Francis were educators at the time, but they decided they wanted to change the way people thought of hospitals.

“Hospitals then were places that you went to die, they were dirty and dark and unsanitary. She had a very different vision, a clean, well run, modern, scientific hospital and the Mayos agreed, so it was the opening of St. Mary’s hospital that helped the practice grow, bring in many new patients and extend the service that we offer today,” Dacy said.

So instead of letting the day ruin the town of Rochester.

“It was a place of agriculture, commerce, there was a hospitality industry, there was a railroad that took people to other parts of the country, it was a dynamic, vibrant community and then this disaster hit and as you can imagine, the community could have gone into a balance or gone forward,” Dacy said.

They turned it into a day that would later help the town prosper.

“It’s kind of hard to look back and say what might have happened. There may have been a clinic, but it may not have started the way it started,” Timmerman said.

Timmerman said the story of that day speaks to the human spirit and their will to rebuild after tragedy.

From that day, planning for St. Mary’s Hospital took place over the next four years and it opened in 1889.

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