ROCHESTER, Minn. ― It's easy for a city now known as a global medical destination to forget where it came from.
The History Center of Olmsted County wants to remind Rochester of its roots by restoring the Stoppel Farmstead, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places to commemorate the early pioneers and agricultural history of southeast Minnesota.
Wayne Gannaway executive director of the History Center of Olmsted County, said Rochester was a "hodunk country town" when the Stoppel brothers arrived in the 19th century.
"Now it's this bustling urban center and just continuing to grow," Gannaway said. "The truth is that so many residents today have no idea about the agricultural roots of Olmsted County."
HCOC has begun the long process of renovating the historic farmstead to make it comfortable for visitors to walk through and learn from. Gannaway said the best way for residents and other visitors to learn the story of Rochester's roots is to bring them into its earliest constructed buildings.
"This (farmstead) is really important to Rochester because it belongs to the public," he said. "And it may very well be the oldest farmstead in Olmsted County."
Restoration plans include "preserving and rehabilitating" the historic barn, stonehouse, smokehouse, caves and silo, Gannaway said.
"You're looking at buildings that were constructed in the 1860s through the 1880s, and a lot of the materials have deteriorated over the many years," he said. "There's a lot of preservation work that needs to be done, just to be able to walk through and occupy the buildings."
The first step in that journey was to have several architectural firms tour the farm site, one of which will produce the blueprints that will be used to apply for a grants and other funding opportunities.
"It's not going to be inexpensive," Gannaway said.
One of Rochester's first farm families
According to HCOC research, George Stoppel left Germany in 1834 and spent several years in Switzerland and France, before he sailed to America in 1848. There, he joined his brother, Francis Joseph (who went by Joseph) in Ohio, where he met and married his wife, and the two brothers took their families via wagon to find some affordable land in Minnesota.
The Stoppel brothers settled side by side in Rochester Township in 1856, where they had each filed a claim to purchase 160 acres from the U.S. government. They each paid $1.25 per acre for a total of $200.
"This is when the federal government was creating plots of land to lure settlers into the open space," Gannaway said. "That's a key pivot point in American history."
George Stoppel built a number of buildings on the site, and still standing are the barn, a shed, a silo and the stone house.
The Stoppel Farmstead was eventually divided between Joseph's sons Henry and Charles, and Charles built a farmhouse on his part of the property in 1892. Ralph Stoppel, Charles' son, took over the farm and lived there for much of his life.
The farm stayed in the family until 1956, 100 years after it was constructed. The farmstead was purchased by the Olmsted County Historical Society in 1976.
Gannaway said like most settlers at the time, the first crop of focus at the Stoppel farm was wheat. Experiencing many obstacles with producing the crop in the Midwest, the family eventually transitioned to raising dairy.
"Dairy became a big part of their operation closer to the end of the 19th century," he said. "So the farm also helps tell the story of those changes in 19th century agriculture."
A winter inside a cave
The two families lived inside of a cave the brothers had constructed during the first winter, according to research by HCOC.
Kevin Whaley, collections manager with the History Center of Olmsted County, said that George Stoppel was a trained cooper, a trade that makes barrels and various casks, and his brother Joseph was a stonemason and therefore knew his way around quarries.
"The cave would've provided much needed heat during the winter," Whaley said. "Especially because they got here fairly late in the season, and weren't able to get bigger structures built by that time."
The temperature is significantly warmer and the surfaces are all dry inside the cave on a 20-degree day in January with snow falling.
"You almost get the sense that Joseph (Stoppel) had dug caves before," Gannaway said.
Inscriptions on the walls of the cave, which has air vents, can clearly be read, which Whaley said is not graffiti by trespassers but "actual writing" from the Stoppel family and friends of the family.
"This one has the date 10/3/09," he said. "That's not 2009, but 1909."
Gannaway said HCOC has consulted with some cave experts, and it's possible the cave constructed by the Stoppel family is the second-oldest man made cave in the state.
Whaley said what makes the Stoppel Farmstead more unique than any other historical agricultural sites in Olmsted County is how early it was constructed, and how well the structures were built.
"They were one of the first families to move out here," Whaley said. "And just to see how long it's lasted and how well of shape it's still in."