The Washington’s Birthday sales were in full swing that February weekend in 1971 at the Miracle Mile shopping center in Rochester.

Donaldson’s department store offered a huge shoe sale on the third floor, Streitmatter’s had sport coats and winter jackets at the bargain price of $12, the Camera Center put Kodachrome II film on sale for $2.52, and Frerich’s hardware store priced furnace filters at 54 cents each.

By the time the weekend was over, though, Streitmatter’s, the Camera Center and Frerich’s would be rubble — victims of a fire on Feb. 21 that burned through the southern half of Miracle Mile and caused at least $1.5 million in damages.

Gone also were Snyder Drug, the Pub Bar, Royal Shoe Repair, and the Toy Box, where firefighters had set up a firewall to save what was left of the shopping center.

Wreckage from the fire Feb. 21, 1971, at the Miracle Mile Shopping Center in Rochester. (Post Bulletin file photo)
Wreckage from the fire Feb. 21, 1971, at the Miracle Mile Shopping Center in Rochester. (Post Bulletin file photo)

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“It looks like a World War II bombed-out area,” a worker on cleanup duty told the Post Bulletin the next day.

It was said to be the worst fire in the city’s history up to that point. Amazingly, there were no injuries or deaths, probably because the fire broke out early on a Sunday morning, when stores and offices were vacant.

Firefighters battle a fire Feb. 21, 1971, at the Miracle Mile Shopping Center in Rochester. (Post Bulletin file photo)
Firefighters battle a fire Feb. 21, 1971, at the Miracle Mile Shopping Center in Rochester. (Post Bulletin file photo)

When Miracle Mile opened in October 1952, it was the first major shopping center in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities. Ads proudly proclaimed that Miracle Mile offered “15 acres of paved parking.”

At first, only seven stores were ready for business, but the center gradually grew to nearly three dozen shops and services. And while local competition had come first from Crossroads and then from Apache Mall, Miracle Mile continued to draw loyal shoppers.

Then came the fire.

It was discovered at 6 a.m. that Sunday, and for the next several hours, 40 firefighters poured 5,000 gallons of water per minute on the burning stores. Bystanders heard ammunition from Frerich’s firearms department exploding in the flames. Thick, choking smoke billowed skyward. Meanwhile, a steady line of cars paraded along nearby streets so people could spend their Sunday afternoon gawking at the biggest fire most of them had ever seen.

The small alley separating the north and south sections of the shopping center was one factor that kept the fire from spreading northward through more stores. Still, 26 businesses and shops were destroyed or forced to close.

Snyder Drug quickly put out the word that prescriptions could be refilled at the Crossroads Snyder store. Almost as quickly, it was announced that the burned-out section of Miracle Mile would be rebuilt.

Within a few years, Miracle Mile was once again humming with shoppers, and the 15 acres of paved parking were crowded with vehicles.

Another (much less severe) fire occurred at Miracle Mile in March of 1980, destroying two businesses and damaging three others. Damage was estimated at $250,000.

In the 50 years since the great fire, Miracle Mile has had physical makeovers, and merchants have come and gone. But the city’s first shopping center has so far managed to survive flames, changing shopping habits, and now a deadly pandemic.

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