Maine Prairie Corners: A Minnesota Ghost Town

  • May 11, 2014

A township of new settlers from Maine sprung up in Stearns County, Minnesota around 1856, but it wasn’t until 1858 that the small pioneer village officially adopted the name, Maine Prairie. During the Dakota Conflict of 1862, Maine Prairie became the site of a small log fort, known as Maine Prairie Fort. Built in August of that year, the fort was a two level, 40’x40’ square stockade that was manned by a volunteer militia. Although there was some fighting nearby, the Maine Prairie Fort and nearby villages were never attacked.

By 1865 several small business and community buildings had sprung up near the fort. A post office, blacksmith shop, cheese factory, general store, lodge hall, and three churches were erected at the intersection of County Roads 8 and 15. Residents of the little town decided to change the name to Maine Prairie Corners that same year. A short time later, a community cemetery was established just north of the town. Maine Prairie Corners became a vibrant settlement. Families began to build homes near downtown while the fertile countryside was snatched up by farmers.

Like so many little towns on the prairie, business in Maine Prairie Corners floundered when the Soo Line Railroad crossed the county four miles south of town in 1886. Later that year, a new town, Kimball Prairie, was built along the railroad line, dealing the final blow to the businesses in Maine Prairie Corners. Within a few years most of the businesses and buildings had been moved to Kimball — even the post office closed and moved into the new town. The last remaining building in Maine Prairie Corners was destroyed by a fire in 1919. Today, only the farms of Maine Prairie remain.

It’s hard to believe that a little town like Maine Prairie Corners could ignite much controversy, but in the midst of my research I ran across local folklore I thought I’d share. Legend says that the area’s first cold-blooded killer lived not far from Maine Prairie Corners. Mathias Peter Beckers is said to have been born on March 5, 1871, near Old St. Anne’s Catholic Church. One night while he was still just a boy, Mathias was awakened by hysterical sounds from his parents. Flames could be seen over the hill at Old St. Anne’s Church and the family scrambled to do what they could to extinguish the fire. Mathias and his eldest sister, Hubertina, ran through some trees, across a field, and down an embankment to fetch pails of water to put out the fire. He watched as his mother fell to her knees while the church burned bright in the nighttime sky. He vowed vengeance against those who started the fire.

The next morning Mathias looked for clues and traced horse prints back to a barn near Maine Prairie Corners. Hate between Catholics and Protestants in the area was simmering, but St. Anne’s was quickly rebuilt. As a teenager, Mathias began sneaking out of the house at night to guard the new church, with his rifle and pistol, from a tree fort that he had built. When the individuals returned several months later to set fire to the church yet again, Mathias was there to see who the individuals were and track them to where they lived.

In 1892 Kimball celebrated its very first town picnic. The lack of official law enforcement caused area citizens to be appointed as security for the event. Mathias and his family attended the picnic where a confrontation between Mathias and one of the men he suspected of setting the fires at Old St. Anne’s escalated quickly. The heated argument caused Mathias to be removed from the town and ordered to immediately return home. His anger festered for the rest of the summer. It all came to a boiling point on August 20 when Mathias left home for Maine Prairie Corners just after midnight. When he got there, he hunted down each person he thought was responsible for the church fires with the intent of killing them. He torched several buildings in the small community and shot at anyone that he came in contact with.

An all night gunfight between Mathias and his protestant enemies ensued. They exchanged gunfire all the way from Maine Prairie Corners, through Kimball, and then south to Old St. Anne’s where Mathias had help waiting. In the end, Mathias died from gunshot wounds he received in the battle. His mother believed that he was possessed by the devil and tried to cover up the attack by telling neighbors that Mathias died from tuberculosis. His father, Johann, buried him just outside of Old St. Anne’s cemetery and then set about secretly burying the other men who died in the shootout. Johann, his eldest daughter Hubertina, and son Michael are said to have buried the men hastily in unmarked graves.

It’s said that Old St. Anne’s was burned fourteen times over a thirty year period (or once every two years). When St. Anne’s moved into Kimball, it was again destroyed by fire. Finally, with the hope of ending the fires, the new church was built with as much concrete as possible. Mathias’ parents asked that the community cover-up the events of August 20 and never speak of them again. The event supposedly marked the end of religious strife in the area. Mathias Beckers’ headstone can allegedly be seen just outside the western boundary of Old St. Anne’s church cemetery.

Read the text on the Maine Prairie Corners marker here.

 

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