As an area history buff, Mayo Clinic's Dr. Paul Scanlon often finds himself buttonholed by colleagues and acquaintances with questions about the city's past.

Why was Mayo Clinic built in the middle of nowhere? What happened to the Native Americans who once populated Southern Minnesota? Why is the snag-filled river running through Rochester called the "Zumbro"? Of all the uninspired, common names, why is Rochester called Rochester?

More often than not, Scanlon has the answer.

"It's relatively uncommon for somebody who's a native of Rochester to work as a physician at the Mayo Clinic," he said. "I've always been viewed as the local yokel. If somebody has some question about Rochester, they come to me."

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Scanlon, a Mayo professor emeritus of medicine in the pulmonary and critical care division, has written a book, "Rochester Stories: A Med City History," that pulls together many of those questions to create the most contemporary, up-to-date account of Rochester's history.

"It's quite a fascinating history," he said. "It's got a lot of the history related to Mayo Clinic, but a lot that's not."

Mayo Clinic Dr. Paul Scanlon
Mayo Clinic Dr. Paul Scanlon

The book is set for release June 7, and is being published by Charleston, S.C.-based History Press.

Aware that people generally enjoy a good yarn but view history as boring, Scanlon wrote the book as a series of self-contained stories. Instead of a "big, fat book" that must be read from beginning to end, Scanlon's 200-page book is structured so readers can pick and choose what they want to read.

The vignettes cover events (an 1879 gunfight, the 1918 influenza pandemic), iconic institutions and landmarks (the "Corn Cob" water tower, The Chateau, and the hospital for the "insane"), and colorful personalities (William Worrall Mayo, father of William and Charles Mayo, an argumentative, often disliked but revered figure who mentored other world-famous figures in addition to his sons; Cut-Nose, one of 38 Native Americans hanged in Mankato in 1862 and whose body was dissected by W.W. Mayo; and Dr. Leda Stacey, a pioneer in four medical fields).

Some of the stories will be familiar to longtime residents, but several of them are based on books and hard-to-find sources that were gathering dust in the archives, Scanlon said.

Born and raised in Rochester, Scanlon, 68, attended grade school at Edison, where he would later serve as a School Board member. His life is intertwined with some of the figures and families about which he writes.

He grew up playing on the property of the Plummer House when Daisy Plummer, wife of Henry, one of Mayo's founders, still lived there. The house he grew up in was first owned by Roy Watson Sr., Kahler Corp. CEO.

Scanlon was a friend of Bernie Brom, father of David Brom, a mass murderer who killed his parents, brother and sister with an ax in February 1988. There is a chapter in his book about the Brom murders.

"It's an important story," Scanlon said. "People say, 'Oh, Rochester is such a sweet place. Nothing ever happens here.' Excuse me. One of the most horrible family mass murders in U.S. history happened right here."

Gunfight

There was a time in the mid-1850s when Rochester was part of the frontier. And like most frontier towns, there were robberies and bad guys. On June 15, 1879, Dan Ganey committed a burglary in Owatonna. He was arrested in Kasson, but escaped. Early the next morning, he was eating breakfast at the Norton House, around where Mayo Civic Center stands now.

Henry Kalb, the city marshal, caught up to there and arrested him. Kalb, a German immigrant, was described as quiet and unassuming, but strict in law enforcement. As they crossed Broadway at what is now Center Street, Ganey broke free, pulled a revolver, and told Kalb, "You go." Kalb didn't move, and Ganey fired at close range, missing Kalb's cheek. Kalb returned fire, but also missed, and Ganey fled on foot, and Kalb went after him.

Ganey got cornered, and turned and fired his gun, but missed again. Kalb fired back, hit Ganey in the chest, and killed him.

Postcard of Rochester Fire Station.
Postcard of Rochester Fire Station.

Passenger pigeons

Passenger pigeons were once the most populous birds in North America. They flocked by the billions. They would land on trees, and the branches would break from their sheer weight. For years, the birds nested in the woods from Kalmar and New Haven to Pine Island. During breeding season, the birds could be seen for miles around, leaving and returning to their nests. But their meat was seen as a delicacy, and they were hunted to extinction.

Hunters from the surrounding country raided the Genoa woods, and the birds and their squabs were shipped in bags and barrels to Chicago and other markets. The last passenger pigeon died in captivity on Sept. 1, 1914.

William Worrall Mayo

W.W. Mayo is often overshadowed by his two more famous sons, Will and Charlie. But the story of how Mayo ended up in Rochester starts with W.W. Scanlon calls him an "incredible" man who not only mentored his sons, but also other world-famous figures.

W.W. Mayo helped Frank Kellogg, who grew up 15 miles from Rochester, with his independent study to become a lawyer. Kellogg was later recruited by the Teddy Roosevelt Administration as a "trust-busting" federal prosecutor. He was later elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota and co-authored the Kellogg-Briand Act, which made it a felony to start a war.

He also mentored Henry Wellcome, who co-founded the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Company, which became the largest drug company in the world. Eighty years after his death, the Wellcome Trust is worth $42 billion and the fourth largest charitable trust in the world, Scanlon said.

Postcard of Schuster's Brewing Company.
Postcard of Schuster's Brewing Company.

The Avalon Hotel

The history of the Avalon Hotel is a reminder of Rochester's racist history. Vern Manning bought the building in the 1940s after being unable to find hotel accommodations while his wife was being treated at Mayo Clinic. For years, The Avalon became the only hotel in Rochester that would put up African Americans. No other white-owned hotel would take them.

Scanlon said a state commission investigating the treatment of the races in the 1940s concluded that the racial policies of Rochester hotels were an "embarrassment to the state of Minnesota they were so bad."

About the book

"Rochester Stories: A Med City History," published by History Press, will be released June 7 and cost $22. The book can be pre-ordered through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. The History Center of Olmsted County and Canadian Honker restaurant will also carry the book.