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1950: A hiccup on the road to growth

A growth of the suburbs led to a low population count in the early postwar years.

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A view looking north along First Avenue in downtown Rochester in 1950, the year the city's official population fell short of expectations.
Contributed / History Center of Olmsted County
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As census-takers fanned out in 1950 to count Rochester’s population, city fathers anticipated a huge increase from the 26,312 people who lived here in 1940.

And with good reason: The postwar economy was purring, more building permits were being issued, and besides, Rochester had always had substantial population gains.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to boom-town status. When preliminary census figures were released in June 1950, Rochester had a smaller – much smaller – number of residents than expected. The unofficial population of 29,663 represented an increase of only 3,321 people, or 12.63% more than 1940.

“The new population figure for Rochester is far below estimates, which started at about 32,500 and ran to nearly 40,000,” the Post-Bulletin reported. “The increase is the smallest the city has shown since the 1900-1910 decade.”

By contrast, the city’s population had boomed from 1910 to 1920, going from 7,844 to 13,722. There was another large jump to 20,621 in 1930. Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Rochester’s population grew from 20,621 in 1930 to 26,312 in 1940.

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So what happened in the ‘40s to curtail this phenomenal growth pattern?

“Here and elsewhere, census officials explained, the population trend has shifted from urban to suburban,” the Post-Bulletin said. “A number of Rochester residents in the 1940s have moved to suburban sections.” Most of the local population growth has been “just outside or adjacent to the city.”

That growth had spilled out of the city and into Marion, Rochester, Cascade and Haverhill townships. Since some of those newer residential developments were not within the city limits, the people living there could not be counted as part of Rochester’s population.

Also, the newspaper said, “Rochester lost several hundred as result of the ruling that students be counted where they attend school.” Because a good many Rochester students attended colleges or prep schools elsewhere, they could not be included in the city’s population.

All of this added up to a letdown for those who wished to see Rochester take its place among the state’s fastest-growing cities. While Rochester’s numbers lagged, St. Cloud enjoyed a 17% increase in population during the 1940s, and Mankato’s population grew by 20%, according to the preliminary figures.

When the final, official census figures were released on July 31, 1951, they included a slight increase for Rochester – all the way up to 29,885, a gain of 251 people since the preliminary count.

That total was still far below the original estimates, but it kept Rochester in place as the fourth-largest city in the state, behind Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.

Any drag on the city’s population growth would be brushed aside in the next decade. During the 1950s, IBM would establish a major plant here, bringing thousands of employees and their families to town. Mayo Clinic would open the new Mayo Building and continue to expand.

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By the next census, in 1960, Rochester’s population was up to 40,663. A city that had known only steady growth was back on track.

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

Then and Now - Thomas Tom Weber col sig

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.
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