Things started looking up for Rochester in 1949
From Cortisone to new construction, the end of the 1940s was the start of good times.
The 1940s were years of triumph and tragedy, and as the decade drew to a close, it was time to take one last glance backward before moving into a new era.
That was true in Rochester, as in the rest of the world. War had consumed the first half of the decade, and the years that followed brought recovery, as well as new threats and dangers.
But with New Year’s Eve approaching, there were reasons to celebrate. The year 1949, the Post-Bulletin reported, “was a year of discovery and building.”
The biggest local story of the year, according to the newspaper, was the discovery of cortisone, which had been announced April 21. Four Mayo Clinic scientists — Drs. Philip R. Hench, Edward C. Kendall, Charles H. Slocumb and Howard F. Polley — had developed what was initially known as Compound E for the treatment of arthritis. Their tests produced near-miraculous results, although what became known as cortisone was not yet widely available.
Still, coming on the heels of the spread of atomic weaponry and its potential to wipe out wide swaths of humanity, the discovery of a new substance that could enhance life was a triumph. Kendall and Hench would share the Nobel Prize in Physiology 1950.
Another major story on the local scene was a building boom. In 1949, $13 million in new construction was started or finished in Rochester, including $3.9 million at Rochester State Hospital, and $1.75 million in private housing.
However, a giant dark cloud threatened to blot out the rays of good news. The first cases of polio in the region had been reported in March in Mabel and in April in Lanesboro. Within a month, 14 cases had been recorded in Fillmore County, according to the Post-Bulletin. Soon, polio was reported in patients in Rochester, Winona, St. Charles and Austin. By the end of the year, there were 50 cases and two deaths from polio in Olmsted County. Fillmore County had 76 cases and seven deaths.
Meanwhile, what became known as “the big wind” hit Rochester on Oct. 10. With peak gusts of 100 miles per hour that afternoon, it was the most powerful wind storm since the infamous tornado of 1883, the Post-Bulletin reported. Signs, power lines and trees were blown down, windows were smashed, and shingles were torn from homes. The corn crop, only a third of which had been harvested to that date, was severely damaged.
As the decade drew to a close, there were signs of modern progress everywhere. At the end of 1949, there were 15,000 telephones in Rochester, an increase of nearly 1,000 in the past 12 months.
On New Year’s Eve, moviegoers could take in “The Great Lover” starring Bob Hope at the Chateau, or “Reckless Moment” with James Mason and Joan Bennett, at the Time.
Police reported large crowds downtown that night, but no crime and no traffic accidents in Olmsted County.
Sunday, January 1, 1950, the first day of a new decade, offered hope that a turbulent era had come to a close. And with a record high temperature of 42 in Rochester that day, it was possible to feel that the decade of the 1950s was getting off to a good start.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.