This article first appeared March 12, 1955 in the publication Mayovox.
Even in this jet-propelled present day, 1,000,000 miles is considerable of a distance. A generation and more ago, 1,000,000 miles of travel by automobile was a very great distance indeed.
Between the early 1920’s and the late 1930’s, Fred Dahle of General Service drove a million miles for the same man – Dr. W. J. Mayo. It is a record in which Dahle, understandably, takes a deep quiet pride.
Fred Dahle Recalls Million Miles With W. J. Mayo
Fred Dahle was born and raised on his parents’ farm over in Dodge County. He came to Rochester in 1911, worked for five years at the State Hospital as a cook. Then, for a couple of years, he owned a confectionery-restaurant at Hayfield, Minn.
Seven years was more than enough to convince him that inside work was nothing for a man born and raised on a farm—and yet he didn’t just want to go back to farming. So, in 1918, he came back to Rochester as a construction foreman; among other jobs, he helped build the first kennels at the Institute of Experimental Medicine.
Friend of a Friend
Then, as so often seemed to have happened in those days, a friend of a friend came into the picture.
Long-time Clinic people will remember Del Hamilton, the barber out at St. Mary’s Hospital. Well, one day while getting a haircut, Dr. W. J. Mayo asked “where he could find a good man.” Hamilton suggested Fred Dahle. Dr. Will interviewed Fred, hired him, told him to report to Louis West.
Mr. West (“the most wonderful teacher anyone every had”) was then master factotum at the Mayo home—now, Foundation House. When Mr. West transferred his mechanical talents to the Clinic proper in 1926, Fred took over this assignment.
Oddly enough, the first trip that Dahle took with the Mayos was not by automobile at all—it was on the recently commissioned yacht, the North Star, on her maiden voyage. This was the first of thousands of water-miles that Fred was to make; in 1933, for example, he accompanied Dr. Will on a trip to Europe.
But getting back to automobiles, and a million miles of driving…
Understandably, there was a new car each year—on the roads of 30 and more years ago, they were racking up upwards of 60,000 miles annually.
Trips might be anywhere from a short 200 miles (say, to a meeting of the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota) to an extended tour of either coast, Mexico, Canada—in his later years, as he began turning more responsibility over to younger men, the longer trips became more frequent. And throughout his many travels, short trip or long, Mrs. Mayo usually accompanied him.
Wherever the trip might be, Dr. Will followed an unvarying routine. He would tell Fred when and to what place they were going. On the appointed day, at precisely the appointed hour, he would step briskly into the car, lean back comfortably, and relax. Within strict legal limits, he liked speed. (“He would ask, ‘when will we be in Kansas City, Fred?’ and I would say ‘4:30.’ It pleased him enormously when we would arrive at 4:30—not 4:15 or 4:45, but 4:30.”)
Dahle remembers many favorite cars over the years. One was old “548” Packard, which in a sense may have been the first convertible, anywhere. A dignified limousine in winter, it “converted” into an open car in summer by the simple expedient of taking the whole top off!
Some 40,000 of the million miles was made in the mid-thirties with what Dahle calls “The Covered Wagon.” This was an early, vast and wonderfully complete trailer, fitted out with sleeping quarters, lavatories, hot and cold water, lights, galley for cooking. “The Covered Wagon” performed admirably on such major trips as those to Texas, Florida and California.
What did Dr. Mayo like to see on his travels? New sights and old sights, in about equal proportions. He never tired of the drive up the West Coast from San Diego to Tacoma; “We made this one a dozen times.”
Happily, Fred Dahle made thousands of feet of movie film of these travels; they provide an irreplaceable record for Mayo historians. With still photography, Dahle admits, he was less fortunate. He recalls Dr. Will’s wry comment on some pictures taken in California: “These, Fred, are neither a work of art nor a means of identification.”
Yes, Fred agrees, it may come as something of a surprise to Clinic newcomers that Dr. Will ever made jokes. Most people knew him as a physician--and where medicine was concerned, no levity was permitted, ever.
Away from the crushing responsibilities of the Clinic, riding along smoothly over a scenic highway, he might joke with companions. “But when medicine entered the conversation it was as though –as though a curtain had dropped.”
Even with the best of automobiles, motoring a generation and more ago was not always uneventful. How was Dr. Mayo in the less agreeable situations? Helpful? Impatient? Critical?
None of these. He assumed that you knew your job, would do what was necessary to straighten out trouble. “He simply ignored trouble, you could say.”
For instance, there was the time when Dahle was driving Dr. and Mrs. Mayo and Mabel Root back from the Twin Cities during a blizzard. Seven miles from home, a particularly icy stretch had caused a pile up of cars. A bus came creeping along, and the cars’ passengers transferred to make the rest of the trip to Rochester.
When Fred decided to stay with the car, Dr. Will exchanged his legendary fur coat for Dahle’s lighter cloth coat. As he climbed into the bus, he leaned out to remark, “It could have been worse, Fred. It might have happened to us in South Dakota.”
Incident at Twilight
A duty appointed deputy, Fred was allowed to carry a gun. Toward dusk one evening, they were driving into a small southern town. As the big car slowed to a crawl, a burly man jumped onto the running board and ordered Fred to turn into a forbidding looking side street. Instead, the car picked up speed as Fred stomped down on the gas.
The thug leaned threateningly into the car—and found himself staring into the business end of a .38 police special. Without further discussion, the man hit the street sprawling.
Concerned—Dr. Mayo was no longer a young man—Fred looked into the back seat. Dr. Mayo was smiling slightly. His only comment: “You know, Fred, I rather doubt that that young man will do that again soon.”