Built the year after statehood, one modest home has housed two notable Minnesota families.
LE SUEUR, MINN. -- When William Mayo built his white clapboard house here in 1859, he made the front windows that faced Main Street longer than normal, reaching almost to the ground. Their length gave the modest house an air of elegance and affluence.
Mayo had come to Minnesota five years earlier from malaria-ridden Indiana, hitching up his horse and buggy and vowing to his wife, "I'm going to keep driving until I get well, or die."
The Minnesota Territory touted a healthful climate, with its clean air and sky-blue lakes. Mayo arrived in St. Paul, breathed deep, and stayed. The house he built still stands. It has seen history trot past its windows; its walls have sheltered families that went on to found the Mayo Clinic and Green Giant Foods. Drawing on an interview with Dorothy von Lehe, the executive director of the W.W. Mayo House, and historical records, here's a glimpse of Minnesota's story, as one house saw it from the time of statehood and 150 years onward.
Building a home, a state
Mayo left St. Paul in 1856, heading southwest through the Big Woods -- a swath of deeply forested land between the Mississippi and Minnesota river valleys. The family lucked into a one-room log cabin being vacated by a fellow heading to the California gold fields. When a developer in the nearby settlement of Middle Le Sueur learned that Mayo was a doctor, he lured him into town by selling him two building lots for $1.
Mayo built the house with his brother, insulating the walls with old newspapers and copies of "The Country Gentleman" magazine. The arched window in the peaked front gable lent a sense of grace to his cramped office. The other three upper rooms relied on heat rising from first-floor stoves.
Downstairs, visitors were gentled left into the company parlor, but the family spent its time in the parlor to the right, with its day bed, work table and bookcase. Across the back of the house was the kitchen, with a stovepipe running the length of the room to warm it.
This was Louise Mayo's domain -- the place where laundry was washed, butter churned, candles made, chickens plucked, bread kneaded and the family fed. It's also the room where she probably stood bent in grief when in 1860, little Sarah, their third child, died in the house at 18 months. The following year, William James was born in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
A house of many identities
Settlers, being self-sufficient sorts, often doctored themselves. Mayo's first patient was a horse, and he cured it, thus earning his neighbors' confidence. He learned about medicinal herbs from the Dakota Indians, and so filled the shelves with herbs that Louise tended in a large garden out back. For several months the house was headquarters for a weekly newspaper, the Le Sueur Courier, that Mayo published. In June 1861, Henry David Thoreau and a friend traveled by steamboat from St. Paul to Redwood Falls and passed through Le Sueur. Thoreau probably sat for an interview in the house. There's no record of a newspaper story, Von Lehe said, "but it wouldn't surprise me if they had met, because Mayo was so political."
The tensions of the frontier reached the breaking point in 1862 when four young Indians, resentful of white encroachment, killed a white family near Litchfield on Aug. 17. Over the next several days, almost 200 more whites were killed, and Mayo and most of Le Sueur's men left to help defend New Ulm.
Louise opened the house to 11 families who'd fled their homes. Blankets and bedrolls covered every inch of every floor, upstairs and down. In one day, they baked a barrel's worth of flour -- almost 200 pounds -- into bread.
Legend has it that when a rumor came that the Indians were closing in on Le Sueur, Louise told the women of the town to dress in their husbands' clothes and tie knives and spoons onto broomsticks. Then they marched in formation, back and forth in front of the white clapboard house, the sun shining on the cutlery like bayonets, hoping to make any Indian scouts think that reinforcements had arrived.
The cannery era
The Gothic-style house changed hands several times, until Charlotte Wright Bradley bought it in 1876, and gave the house to her daughter Elizabeth as a wedding gift.
All four children of Elizabeth and Carson Cosgrove were born in the house. Cosgrove worked to organize the Minnesota State Fair, which opened in 1885. (Think Cosgrove Street on the fairgrounds.)
Steamboat traffic on the river ended, and Main Street -- which the Cosgroves could see from their tall front windows -- was stagnating.
In 1902, a promoter named John Silver had an idea. "What this town needs is a corn cannery," he said, convincing Cosgrove, now a prosperous landowner, that he was just the investor to make this happen. A year later, the Minnesota Valley Canning Co. (eventually the Green Giant Company) opened.
The family moved into a larger house, and the little house sat empty. The youngest son, Edward, attended the University of Minnesota, where he met and married Louise Strong. They returned to Le Sueur and moved in with the elder Cosgroves. But Louise had other plans.
"I had my eye on the little Mayo house, which was scallopy and just adorable," she said in an interview published in a company newsletter, The Nibletter. So in 1914 the house again became a wedding gift.
Louise began adding rooms -- an indoor bathroom, a summer kitchen. Rats from the nearby feed mill scared the hired girls. "Sometimes it was terrible, and I don't know how I lived through it," Louise recalled. "But then, it was also the happiest time of my life."
The house became company headquarters, with Dr. Mayo's old office now Cosgrove's sanctum. There, he struggled to spread out huge plat maps of the cornfields.
Eventually, an eyesore
In 1920, the family and the business outgrew the house. It fell into disrepair and by 1935 had become an eyesore. People with a sense of history persuaded William Mayo's two sons -- now of the Mayo Clinic -- to buy it. They gave it to the city of Le Sueur and it became the town library.
In 1967, a new library opened and the house again stood empty, but not for long. The Minnesota Historical Society bought it for a symbolic $1, and opened it as an historic site in 1974.
In 1993, Robert Cosgrove died; he was the last person to have lived in the house.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185
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