ROCHESTER, MINN. – Back when Ronald Reagan was the newly elected president, a group of local residents held a Christmas party at historic Mayowood, built in 1911 by Dr. Charles H. Mayo in the countryside outside Rochester.
They had a lot of fun. And they noticed something about the 38-room, 25,000-square-foot mansion.
"We looked around and we thought, 'Good heavens, this place needs help,' " recalled Joann Sheldon, one of the partygoers that evening in 1980.
Furnishings were frayed. Oil paintings were covered in decades of grime. Wooden floors were scarred and the roof leaked.
Sheldon and others decided they'd do something about it. The following year they formed a nonprofit, Friends of Mayowood, and set out to raise money to help renovate the mansion and, especially, its historic period furnishings. The group quickly grew to more than 500 members and inaugurated a tradition of Christmastime mansion tours.
Now, after 37 years and nearly $600,000 raised, Friends of Mayowood is disbanding. In part, because the group's efforts are no longer needed. In 2013, the Mayo Clinic took ownership of the mansion and has spent more than $3 million on renovations.
The decision also reflects a generational shift. The group's members, many now seniors, found that they had trouble getting younger people involved in the work.
"We were all young women when we started this," said Sheldon, 85. "We can't get young women to serve on the board any more. They're all working and doing other things."
"So we decided to take down Friends of Mayowood," she said.
The mansion fell on hard times after Dr. Charles W. Mayo — known as "Dr. Chuck" to distinguish him from his father — moved out in 1966. Ownership of the mansion passed to the History Center of Olmsted County, which didn't have the budget to maintain such a large, grand structure.
The efforts of Friends of Mayowood were crucial to preserving the historic building in those years, said Jennifer Woodford, president of the Rochester Area Foundation, which controls the endowment fund set up by the Friends.
"Friends of Mayowood has done an incredible job supporting the history of the Mayo properties in our community," she said. "Their dedication and their service have been absolutely outstanding."
"The countless hours they have spent analyzing the needs of the building and the collection of historic artifacts have been crucial to getting the property and those beloved items to the state they are today."
A tour of Mayowood reveals a home that's grand yet comfortable, with many Mayo family artifacts contributing to a lived-in look. Thousands of books line shelves; clothes line closets and dishes are in the cupboards. Japanese gardens, fish ponds and hanging bridges are among the trees that line the hillside of the 10-acre site.
When first built, the estate encompassed 3,300 acres and had its own dairy herds, root cellars, icehouses — and a sulky track. Dr. Charles H. Mayo — known to all as "Dr. Charlie" — was an avid horticulturalist and planted thousands of trees and more than 150 varieties of mums on the grounds.
The Friends say the decision to step back doesn't come without regrets.
"It's like the mother of a newborn who can't keep the baby," said Jean Williams, a member of the board. "You know it's in the best interest of the baby to give it up, but it's hard."