ROCHESTER - Mary Mayo Balfour Calvert bit her lip, exhaled and raised her No. 24 bidding card. Over and over. She couldn't help herself.

The 59-year-old descendant of Dr. William Mayo had flown in from Alexandria, Va., to attend what was billed as perhaps the most important antique auction ever held in this southern Minnesota city, which sprouted up around her ancestors' fabled clinic.

Four generations of silver, artwork, furniture and books belonging to the families of the Mayo doctors were getting auctioned off all day Saturday in a brick building at the Olmsted County Fairgrounds.

"This stuff has been in the family forever -- until right now," auctioneer John Kruesel said from his perch as a few hundred bargain hunters, collectors and wealthy doctors looked on from folding chairs and metal bleachers. "If you want to talk about something historic, it doesn't get better than this. These are pieces of Rochester history, folks."

And one by one, the pieces were getting sold to out-of-state buyers.

A corn and soybean farmer and collector named John Goldone drove his pickup five hours from Cherry, Ill., and plunked down $19,500 for a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk he plans to put in his bedroom. A Santa Fe, N.M., gallery called in to bid $8,000 on a Gustav Stickley two-door bookcase.

A St. Paul antique dealer, representing a confidential Chicago collector, prompted a few gasps when he successfully bid $36,000 for a pair of leather and wood chairs from California designers Greene and Greene. And Minneapolis collector and gallery owner Gretchen Monette spent a cool $50,000 for a 1923 Oscar Berninghaus painting of horses called "Winter Cheer" that once hung in the dining room of Dr. Mayo's daughter Carrie and her husband, Dr. Donald Balfour.

Too much for family

Descendant Martha Mayo Anderson of St. Paul said all the stuff had just become too much for the family to hold on to. They kept what they wanted, donated several pieces to the family's foundation and let the grandkids pick over the pre-sale lot.

"It's bittersweet, but it had become too much and was overwhelming," said Anderson, 69, who stayed away from Saturday's sale because she said it was too emotional. "Rather than put it in the attic and hope it survived, it was time to do this, and I hope maybe someone will find things and enjoy them."

Enter her cousin, Mary Calvert, who was representing six siblings and various cousins from around the country. First, she dropped $700 for a lady's pocket watch on a chain that belonged to her Aunt Mary Helmholz. Then she bid $22,000 for a Maurice Braun landscape painting called "Blue Hill."

"We'll share it seven ways," she said. "We'll each hang it for a year and pass it along to a sibling."

Calvert next raised her little No. 24 to land a 19th-century wall clock with a wooden engraved eagle on top that "all the cousins remember." Winning bid: $1,150. "Wonderful to see that going back to the family," auctioneer Kruesel said as applause filled the room.

Calvert admitted the clock won't match the décor of her home in Virginia. "It's not our style, but it was just too important to let it go," she said.

The most emotional moment followed when Building 35 at the fairgrounds grew stone silent as Kruesel prepared to auction off a framed "petit" needlepoint of an American flag and eagle stitched in 1889 by Hattie Damon Mayo, the wife of Dr. William Mayo.

"There's only one of these, and it is a piece of Rochester history," the auctioneer said.

The bidding started quickly, and before anyone knew it, climbed to $6,000. Calvert raised her number.

"I have $6,100," Kruesel said. "How 'bout 62?"

A bidder nearby nodded and Calvert kept raising her number, until she blurted out: "$7,000." "I'm not there yet, Mary," Kruesel said.

With tears in her eyes, she kept the patriotic needlepoint in the family for $6,900.

"It's a treasure and I'm thrilled to keep the heritage in our family," she said. Her son, U.S. Navy pilot Leonard Calvert IV, just returned from Afghanistan.

"He doesn't know it yet, but this is for him," his mother said. "This stuff would sell for triple the prices out East. And it really touched me when everyone said the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the sale. We love and miss that middle-America feeling."

Helen Keller books

Despite some of the megabuck sales, the auction was far from stuffy. Everyone had to register in an old bookmobile trailer outside, and chili and hotdogs were sold all day. Books signed to the family from Helen Keller drew curiosity seekers.

"It's been a real cultural event," said Lucy Kruesel, the auctioneer's daughter, who came down from Grand Marais, Minn., to help out. "Last night at the preview, we played the family's old foxtrot vinyl 78 records and lit candles in the silver candlesticks. This stuff should be in a museum."

Other family items attracted bargain prices, with a nice Oriental rug going for $325 and a five-piece set of mohair chairs and a sofa sold for $275.

"This is real nice French-ified stuff," Kruesel said during the early part of the non-Mayo sales.

Jane Belau, a Rochester woman with a keen eye, shook her head as the Mayo items began to go. "There are hardly enough superlatives to describe the breadth of the historic significance of this sale."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated Hattie Damon Mayo's relation. She was the wife of Dr. William Mayo.