Born in a Storm
Aug. 21, 1883, began as a beautiful, clear summer day. Dr. Will Mayo and his brother Charlie spent it engaged in seeing patients. As the day wore on, it became stiflingly hot and humid, and a haze covered the city. By 6 p.m., the brothers were ready to begin their evening. They hitched a mare to a light buggy, eager to reach a slaughterhouse on the north side of town to secure a sheep's head. The head would be used that night for practicing eye operations. Such exercises fed the brothers' interest in education and research.
As the buggy made its way on the narrow road, the brothers kept watch on the ominous sky. On their arrival at the slaughterhouse, they were met by workers leaving early for home, warning them to take cover from the impending storm. Moments later, as torrential rains fell, a funnel cloud approached from the west. The brothers took shelter in a blacksmith's shop just as its roof was torn away. In just minutes, they witnessed the devastating power of the storm. They then headed for home, making it over the North Broadway bridge just before it was destroyed.
The cyclone (tornado) caused spotty damage in the business district, but the pioneer residential area, around and north of the railway tracks west of Broadway, was heavily hit. Called Lower Town, its houses and animals were literally swept away.
In just minutes, the county courthouse, the high school, the blacksmith's shop and two flour mills had been unroofed. The water had been sucked from Cascade Creek, leaving fish beached on its banks. Livestock was lost, buggies were scattered and debris was strewn everywhere. Mayor Samuel Whitten telegraphed Minnesota Gov. Lucius Hubbard: "Rochester is in ruins. Twenty-four people are killed. Over 40 are seriously injured. One-third of the city laid waste. We need immediate help."
The cyclone wrought an important page in the city's history. This act of nature also marked a turning point in the life of Dr. William Worrall Mayo and his sons. Lessons learned about weathering a storm, working as a team, and taking risks, were about to be applied in a new enterprise.