Rochester is a community of hope and healing, and even though it’s not always exciting, “This is better than Iowa,” as one correspondent said on a postcard mailed home many years ago.
It’s a place where the weather is cold, where the medical care is world-class, and from where visitors can’t wait to return home.
“Now they want us to stay another week,” one frustrated Mayo Clinic patient wrote home to Wisconsin.
Those general impressions are repeated over and over again in messages written on the back of postcards sent from Rochester over the past 120 years. The postcards, which feature both prominent and little-known sites of the city, are part of the Alan Calavano Postcard Collection at the History Center of Olmsted County.
Calavano, who died in 2016, was a collector of Rochester memorabilia, in particular postcards. He owned thousands of postcards of Rochester—with scenes of parks, hotels, churches, Mayo buildings, restaurants, fires, floods, you name it—and the History Center is organizing and cataloging the roughly 2,500 of them that were donated to its archives.
What is depicted on the front of the cards is fascinating enough, especially views of buildings and objects that are no longer here.
The now-missing George Washington statue, which was dedicated in 1911 and stood in Mayo Park. The Markay Dining Room, one of Rochester’s most popular restaurants during the 1950s. The Mayo Park Band Shell, which centerpieced Mayo Park from 1915 to 1951.
But the messages on the back of the cards reveal what visitors really thought of our hometown. Funny how some things never change.
“I think this is a dandy little town, but so quiet,” a visitor from La Crosse, Wis., wrote on a card in 1908.
Or, as one woman wrote to her sister in Montreal in 1910, “Just a note from Rochester. Am still alive, though this town is dead. Will be home soon.”
A visitor from Tennessee, writing in November 1942, extolled the city’s subway system. “It’s a pleasure when it’s so cold,” she said.
“Sure is pretty country up here,” reads a card sent in 1945 to Ohio.
But not everyone was impressed. “This isn’t as pretty as Owatonna,” one visitor wrote in 1907 on a postcard mailed to Minneapolis.
Most of these visitors were here for one reason: Mayo Clinic.
“Here’s where we wound up, hoping against hope for some relief at last,” read a postcard sent in 1949 to Wallingford, Conn.
Some reported an experience common to Mayo Clinic patients over the years: waiting for tests and appointments.
“We spend most of our time sitting and waiting for doctors,” read a 1954 report back home to Illinois.
“I went early so I only had to stand in line for about an hour,” wrote another clinic patient in 1914.
And in 1975, a patient wrote home to Minneapolis: “I have one more appointment at 8 in the morning. I hope I can get out of there by noon.”
There was early success for a patient writing home to Illinois in 1950: “Already got x-rays. We have a few appointments Friday and Saturday, then a consultation Saturday at 10:00.”
Preliminaries out of the way, some patients faced surgery and a long recovery time spent in Rochester.
“I am in good care, but I have 3 or 4 things to be operated for,” a patient wrote home to Beloit, Wis. in 1915. “I am afraid but it can’t be helped.”
Some patients got better news.
“Got through the Clinic today. Everything okay. No Operation necessary! Sure glad,” read a 1940 postcard mailed home to Lincoln, Neb.
But for those needing treatment, there was at least always hope.
“Greg wanted to let you know he is here in this hospital,” his wife, Helen, wrote to friends in Palmyra, NY, in 1945. “It certainly is a wonderful place. We hope it can do for him as much as it has done for so many others. We do not know yet, but are hoping.”
One woman writing in 1958 to her aunt in Osage, Iowa, said, “I have been here in St. Marys Hospital for three weeks and have been helped so much. I wish you could come here to the Mayo Clinic for your trouble. It’s expensive, but worth it.”
Then there were outcomes that were not so happy.
“My mother was taken from me this a.m. at 2:30,” a grieving daughter wrote home to Indiana in 1922. “I am so stunned that I can hardly think and just can’t believe it’s true.”
Others faced long, sometimes uncertain, recoveries.
“She says she is fine but she had a bad operation and it will take a long time to get well,” a husband wrote to folks back home in Topeka, Kansas, in 1929.
“Ora isn’t doing as well as I had hoped,” a Mankato woman wrote home in 1953, “but tomorrow may see him over the hump.”
Others found themselves relieved.
“Chet and I are happy today,” a woman wrote home to Muncie, Ind., in 1951. “They found that I respond to treatment of drugs. Hope to be home sometime next week.”
More to the point was a card mailed to Minneapolis in 1908 from the Cook Hotel:
“Dear Sister. All Well. Wilson.”