August 21, 1883, dawned hot and still in Rochester, Minnesota. But that evening, the quiet was shattered when a devastating tornado tore through the town. "It landed at about where Apache Mall is located now and cut its way through downtown as we know it today," Matt Dacy, Director of Heritage Hall Museum at Mayo Clinic, tells KAAL-TV. "Houses seemed to explode, grain silos toppled over, railroad cars were tossed about in the wind," Dacy tells the station. The powerful storm "killed dozens and injured hundreds," MinnPost reports, "dropping people into cemeteries, scattering fish across the landscape, and plucking chickens bald."
Back then, there was no hospital to tend to the injured. But local physicians—including Dr. William W. Mayo, along with his sons, Will and Charlie—stepped up to care for their friends and neighbors, with the Sisters of Saint Francis helping out. When the dust settled a few months later, Mother Mary Alfred Moes proposed establishing a hospital, with the Mayos serving as staff physicians and the Sisters of Saint Francis providing nursing care. The Mayos argued that the community was too small to support a hospital, but Mother Alfred persisted. "With our faith and hope and energy," she told Dr. Mayo, "it will succeed."
That history is familiar to many Rochesterites and Mayo Clinic patients. But it was new to Doug Hansen, who recently learned his great-grandfather was among those killed in the storm. Hansen's daughter was assigned a family history project, and he discovered the connection to Rochester while helping her track down information. "Getting to know their stories, all of a sudden they become part of you, too," Hansen tells KAAL.
After learning the family story, Hansen "wanted to do something special to honor his great-grandfather and all those who lost their lives or suffered injuries that fateful day," reports KAAL. The Michigan resident, a therapeutic musician who plays at hospice facilities, nursing homes, and hospitals, came to Mayo Clinic for a performance to coincide with the 135th anniversary of the tornado. Among the songs he performed was "Elegy," an original composition he'd performed only twice before, the Rochester Post-Bulletin reports. "There were a few times where I had to fight back the tears, I have to admit," the classical guitarist tells the station. "It caught me off guard that I would feel that overcome with emotion."
Dacy tells KAAL that the concert was a fitting tribute to the "great good" that came from a tragedy. "From the wreckage of the city, from these ruined lives . . . this determination to go forward and help other people is still serving us today."
This story was originally published in Mayo Clinic's "In the Loop."