On a December day in 1935, 89-year-old Marion L. Sloan left her room at Rochester’s Samaritan Hotel to take a look at the downtown Christmas decorations.
Mayo Clinic’s modern Plummer Building—and the shops and streets crowded with holiday shoppers—must have presented a picture unlike that which had greeted Marion 80 years earlier when she and her family arrived in the then-sparsely settled frontier town for the first time.
“The sundown saw us driving into Rochester, which consisted of a log hotel, log post office and store [and] one, two or three log homes and one frame one,” Marion later recalled of that day in 1856 when she first arrived in Rochester.
Marion, her mother, and her three sisters had traveled for more than a week from their hometown of Worcester, Mass., to join her father, Willard, who had come to Rochester in 1855 to find work and make a new home.
The Sloans’ ancestors had sailed on the Mayflower, and the family lived in Massachusetts for generations—until the move to Minnesota.
“Some of the neighbors had talked about going west and my father decided to go, too,” Marion said.
Only days before Marion arrived in Rochester, as the Sloan girls and their mother rode a steamboat up the Mississippi from Galena, Ill., they saw log huts—“which we could hardly believe people lived in,” Marion said—along on the river bank.
A fellow passenger told the travelers they would soon be living in the same conditions. “We laughed at what we thought was his joke,” Marion wrote.
After disembarking at Winona and then riding a bumpy wagon for two days to get to Rochester, Marion wanted nothing more than to enter the comfort of the new family home. The wagon carrying them drove west through town before stopping in front of a primitive hut located where Saint Marys Hospital now stands.
“Father jumped down and said, ‘Well, here we are at home,’ and we found the joke about living in a log home stern reality,” Marion said. “I went into the house and looked around and came out crying. I thought it terrible.”
So began life in Rochester for the girl who would go on to become one of the city’s most active and admired citizens—and a writer of history. Her diary, along with numerous papers (such as “Reminiscences and Genealogical Data”) are cataloged at the History Center of Olmsted County.
“Our only diet at first was bread, salt pork, and beans,” she later recalled. “Soon, we received a cow and some hens, and the milk and eggs added greatly to our supplies.”
Marion Sloan was a precocious child who attended school in Rochester’s log schoolhouse, located east of the Zumbro River near what is today Fourth Street Southeast. “At recess, we could play on the river bank and in the woods,” she said.
Within a year of their arrival, the Sloan family moved to a new frame house at what is now Third Avenue Northwest and Center Street. Later, they settled on a farm in Cascade Township.
When Clara Barton—the future founder of the Red Cross—came to Rochester in 1859, she stayed in the Sloan home for a month. In fact, Barton, then 38, loaned young Marion a pair of her own shoes so the girl could have something nice to wear to a dance.
“My sister was asked by a young man to go to a dance, but she refused to go unless I, too, was allowed to come,” recalled Marion in a 1937 interview. “I said that was impossible because I had just walked in from the farm and had on a pair of heavy walking shoes. Miss Barton heard me say that I couldn’t go because of my shoes and she insisted that I wear hers. I did, and went to the dance.”
In 1861, Marion became a teacher at Pike’s Normal School in Rochester. She was 15 years old.
During the Civil War, the first trains carrying passengers began to arrive in Rochester, and Marion was there to witness—and document—the excitement. “A passenger train came in today for the FIRST TIME,” she wrote in her diary on Oct. 8, 1864. A few days later, Marion wrote that she saw “one very old lady and a poor sick soldier” disembarking from a train car.
Marion was one of the first members of Rochester’s Universalist Church, president of the Rochester Altruistic Club for 20 years, secretary of the Order of the Eastern Star for 21 years, first chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Organization in Olmsted County, and a leader in the women’s suffrage movement (in 1904, she was elected vice-president of the Minnesota State Women’s Suffrage Association).
In the years just before her death at 95 in 1942, Marion began to slow down. She spent winters at the Samaritan Hotel, where she tended the plants on her window sill, knitted, listened to the radio, and played bridge with friends.
When summer weather came, she returned to her home on Second Street Southwest, just blocks from the site of the crude log cabin that had caused her to cry in despair on that first day in Rochester.