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Dr. Charlie Mayo's side pursuit of agriculture

Charlie Mayo acquired nine farms throughout the years in which he built out the Mayowood property in Rochester where he lived.

A statue of Will and Charlie Mayo outside the entrance to Mayo Clinic in downtown Rochester on Oct. 13, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek
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ROCHESTER, Minnesota — While the Mayo brothers were beginning to gain notable success in the early 1900s in the field of surgery, one of them was making sure the farms surrounding his home were also achieving success.

Wayne Gannaway, executive director of the History Center of Olmsted County, was recently a guest on the Agweek Podcast to discuss the Mayo family's ties to agriculture in Southeast Minnesota.

Gannaway is from Winona, Minnesota, and his first job in the field was working in the historic sites department at the Minnesota Historical Society.

"And so southeastern Minnesota, with its rivers and rolling hills and bluffs and gravel roads, and cornfields, is kind of familiar territory to me," Gannaway said. "Even after traveling up and down the eastern seaboard as a historian."

He's had the privilege of working at some of the most historically significant sites in the country, such as the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut and Monticello, the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia.


"But I missed Minnesota, and so when I saw this opportunity here in Olmsted County, I thought this is something I don't want to miss," he said.

Farms of Mayowood

Dr. William Worrall Mayo and his wife, Louise, raised their children including sons Charles and William in Rochester on a farm, where they were said to have helped out with chores. Gannaway said not much is know about the specifics of that family farm.

"What I do know is that they were raised to help their father in all sorts of ways, both with chores on the farm, going out on medical calls, as well out to visit farms to give care to farmers," Gannaway said. "And so I think that lifestyle, and those ethics of the southeastern Minnesota farmer was really ingrained in them, especially in Dr. Charlie."

In 1907, Charlie and Will Mayo bought the land that would become Mayowood from Adolf Biermann, a politician and farmer. Gannaway said it was a 340-acre farm that they bought for $20,000 at the time. He said that Will ultimately transferred all of the land over to Charlie, and he built what is now known as Mayowood Mansion.

"But Maywood is much more than the mansion," Gannaway said. "It was a 3,000-acre farm that was a serious agricultural pursuit."

That stayed the case all the way up until when he died in 1936. Gannaway said Charlie Mayo never referred to himself as a farmer, but as an "agriculturalist." Others may have called him a gentleman farmer, or a book farmer, he said, because unlike pioneer farmers who used intuition to farm, Charlie Mayo read books and journals about farming before he tried his hand at the practice.

The sign to the Mayowood Stone Barn, now used for events such as weddings and parties, on Oct. 13, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek


"But that really fits Dr. Charlie's character, because he was so intellectually curious, and he was a researcher," Gannaway said. "So it only stands to reason that he would have taken a very methodical approach and a science, or what he viewed as a science-based approach, to farming."

Charlie Mayo acquired nine farms throughout the years he built out the Mayowood property, Gannaway said, so he also could be considered as a landlord.

"He wasn't a absentee landlord, though," Gannaway said.

He said that most of the operations on Mayowood grounds were dairy farms, and that managers of the farms would be allowed to keep a percentage of milk that was produced, and the rest would go to the Mayo and his family.

"He paid attention to his farms enough to make sure that he was following the best practices of the day," Gannaway said of Charlie Mayo.

He said in the early 1900s, there was a lot of attention to best practices, "trying to make farming more scientific, more efficient" to make rural life more appealing. While America was seeing a trend where residents were flocking to cities for better opportunities, Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission of 1908-1909 tied rural prosperity to conservation.

"It's interesting because we see attention being paid to rural life today as well, from people not just who live on farms, but others in small towns and rural areas," Gannaway said. "And they did that in the early 1900s, to improve conditions, and really Dr. Charlie was part of that effort. It was an improvement movement."

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