History of Rochester

Rochester, MN has a rich history and heritage. This summary of some of our city’s history—including the origins of Mayo Clinic and IBM in Rochester-- also appears on the City of Rochester’s website.  

Early History of the Area

For thousands of years, native peoples traversed and settled in the area that would become Minnesota.  Native peoples came from Upper Mississippi cultures, from the Northern Woodlands and Western Prairies.  In the last few hundred years, those most frequently inhabiting this area were the Dakota /Sioux, Ojibway, and Winnebago.  

The earliest European explorers came to this area seeking a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. First to arrive were the French in 1660 - Father Louis Hennepin and Pierre Le Sueur. Later Jonathan Carver and other English explorers paddled their birch bark canoes to Minnesota - either up the Mississippi River or across Lake Superior.  For almost two centuries after Hennepin paddled his canoe up the Mississippi, few non-natives had seen the rolling plains and deep valleys of what is now southeastern Minnesota. Under a treaty with the U.S. government concluded in 1853, the Dakota/Sioux Indians relinquished the area, that would include Rochester, to the Territory of Minnesota.

Founding of Rochester, MN

Rochester developed as a stop along the Dubuque trail, a stagecoach line between St. Paul and Dubuque, Iowa.  Located at a crossroads near the Zumbro River, travelers would stop in this area to camp and water their animals. On July 12, 1854, George Head and his family laid claim to land that now forms part of Rochester's central business district. It was there that they built a log cabin known as Head's Tavern. Head named the city after his hometown of Rochester, NY.  In 1855, the territorial legislature created Olmsted County, named after David Olmsted who was the first mayor of St. Paul but never a resident of the county named for him. Rochester was declared the county seat and was incorporated as a city on August 5, 1858. Drawn to the region by its cheap and fertile farm land, other settlers soon followed in Head’s footsteps, and within six years of his arrival, the town’s population had grown to 1,424 residents.  

Birth of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN

In 1863 a physician named William Worrall Mayo, who emigrated to the U.S. from England in 1845, arrived in Rochester from Le Sueur, Minnesota, to become examining surgeon of federal draftees during the Civil War.  Dr. W.W. Mayo stayed on and became Rochester’s “County Doctor”.  In 1864, Rochester became a stop on the Winona & St. Peter Railroad. Three years later, the line was sold to the Chicago & Northwestern Transportation Company, providing area farmers and businesses with the ability to bring their goods to a national market.  By 1880, Rochester had become a regional urban center with a population of 5,103 people.

On August 12, 1883, a thunderstorm swept across the rolling plains.  This violent storm brought a tornado to Rochester killing 24 people, injuring 100 and destroying 150 buildings. The Sisters of Saint Francis and Dr. W.W. Mayo and his sons came to the aid of those injured by the storm.  Sister Mary Alfred Moes, a Franciscan sister teaching in Rochester, was convinced Rochester needed a permanent medical facility. She approached Dr. Mayo with a proposal.  The Sisters would find a way to build a hospital if the

good doctor and his sons, William, who joined the practice in 1883 and Charles, who would join in 1888, would agree to provide the medical staff.  This collaboration laid the framework for today’s St. Marys Hospital which opened in 1889 with 27 beds.  Other doctors came to practice with the Mayo’s, and the medical team developed scientific laboratories to test and refine their medical knowledge. Their efforts would set in motion the development of what has become one of the world's foremost centers of medical care.

Growth and innovation would continue in Rochester into the 20th century.  By 1915, five additional doctors had joined the Mayo partnership (Stinchfield, Millet, Graham, Plummer and Balfour).  The 1914 red clinic building (now the site of the Siebens Building) was outgrown and the iconic Plummer Building was opened in 1927. By 1929 there were 386 physicians working under the Mayo name.  The unique concept of a group medical practice was born out of this partnership - the cooperation and combined wisdom of peers is greater than any individual.  Practitioners at the Mayo Clinic gained renown for pioneering new medical practices and technologies, and over the years, continued to expand their clinic operations, and research and educational facilities.  Outstretched demand for appointments at the Mayo Clinic lead to the construction in 1955 of the first phase of the Mayo Building.  At St. Marys, the Joseph (1922), Francis (1941) and Domitilla (1956) buildings were added to expand the capacity of hospital services.

IBM Chooses Rochester, MN for Major Expansion

Thomas J. Watson, Jr., who would later become the second President of International Business Machines – IBM, was a pilot in WW II where he struck up a friendship with another pilot from Rochester named Leland Fiegel.  In 1946 Watson Jr. returned to work at IBM, the business his father had founded. Fiegel remained in the Air Force after the war, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, rising to the rank of colonel and eventually assistant director of Air Force training.  In 1948, flying on a return trip to Washington from a visit with his friend Watson Jr. in New York, Col. Fiegel died in a plane crash. 

Watson Jr. became CEO of IBM in 1962.  IBM decided to expand and build a plant somewhere in the Upper Midwest.  A real estate consulting firm narrowed the location search down to two comparable sites, one in Madison, Wisconsin and the other in Rochester.  Watson Jr. confided to Leland’s surviving father, Lester Fiegel Sr., that he chose Rochester over Madison for the new IBM plant to honor Lester’s son and his lost friend.  In February 1956, IBM announced plans to establish new manufacturing, engineering and educational facilities on a 397-acre site on the edge of Rochester.  IBM Rochester began with 174 employees and had 1,800 employees by the1958 opening of the first phase of the main “blue” building, designed by AIA Gold Medal architect Eero Saarinen.  The main building at IBM Rochester would eventually become IBM’s biggest building under one roof and employment would steadily grow to around 6,000 by the late 70’s.  The IBM facility bolstered Rochester’s reputation as a center for innovation reflected in consistently high national rankings in the number of patents filed per capita.


Web Sources: Olmsted County/ History; City of Rochester/Comprehensive Plan/Charter/The Flood Control Project 10 Years After/106 Group - Rochester Historical Context; NOAA/ July 1978 storm data; IBM/Rochester History; Mayo Clinic/History; Rochester Post Bulletin/ Why did IBM come to Rochester?/IBM 1978 flood 35th anniversary/2014 rainfall event; Govtrack/Bill introduction; CITYDATA/Rochester.