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Helvetia was an ancient name for Switzerland. Reinhold Zeglin and his General store served the people of Helveita. This photo was taken about 1878. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CARVER COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

, Carver County Historical Society

Not all ghost towns have vanished. Benton, Minn., is in the last stage of disappearing. The towns often are swallowed up by more successful communities. “They are now known as neighborhoods,” said Erin Anderson, education coordinator for Carver County Historical Society.

, Carver County Historical Society

Carver County towns: Gone but not forgotten

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA
  • Star Tribune
  • October 29, 2008 - 5:31 AM

Erin Anderson spends a lot of her time studying things that are not there and talking about places that have disappeared.

Among them: The Baptists of Helvetia, the unlucky legacy of San Francisco, how Hollywood got its name, how Bongards is disappearing and why Mound St. Clair existed only on paper.

These stories harken back to the 15 or more "ghost towns" that dotted Carver County over the past 150 years, but which have since disappeared and receded into memory.

"There are a lot of lost memories there," said Anderson, the education coordinator of the Carver County Historical Society. "Of all the towns that have existed in Carver County, about half have become ghost towns."

Anderson has a traveling exhibit on ghost towns, or "Lost Communities," that she takes to schools around the county.

While the program is aimed primarily at elementary school audiences, she also has an adult presentation she takes to nursing homes or other locations where people want to hear stories about Carver County's past.

Among the props that Anderson uses are donated photographs, some more than 100 years old, that capture the essence of places such as Benton, Scandia or Hazelton.

Often, she said, the photographs trigger memories of many adults who recall the places from their youth.

"The stories that people come up with ..." she said. "They remember this building or that a bar used to be there. People remember when these were towns, and maybe all that's left there now is a ballfield - or nothing in some cases."

Not all ghost towns are totally gone. Some, such as Bongards, Benton and Hollywood, are in the last stages of disappearing, Anderson said. Usually, she said, they are swallowed up by more successful communities.

"They are now known as neighborhoods," Anderson said. "Bongards is the best example of that in the county. It was a creamery -- it still is a creamery -- it still has a sign that says it's a town. But it's not.

"People still say they live in Bongards, even though their address is probably Cologne or Norwood-Young America and their services are taken care of by someplace else."

Half the towns gone

The Historical Society estimates that about half the towns that ever existed in the county have disappeared or been lost.

Among them was the first county seat, San Francisco, founded in 1855 as a result of political clout, but lost because of bad planning.

The town was located along the Minnesota River, but below rapids that made it difficult for boats and other river traffic to reach it easily, Anderson said.

Meanwhile, Chaska and Carver were bigger and more established, even by the mid-1850s.

But the founder of San Francisco, William Foster, used his clout with the Legislature to have the town declared the county seat in 1855, Anderson said.

"He had a lot of friends in the state Legislature and he said I want you to name my town the county seat," Anderson said. "If you were the county seat, that's where farmers went to pay their taxes; lots of business happened there."

But even that was not enough to guarantee the town's success. Flooding and the bad location soon forced the county seat to be moved north to Chaska after only a year.

A flood in the 1860s destroyed most of the buildings in San Francisco, and the few residents who remained vacated the area, turning San Francisco into one of the earliest ghost towns.

"He just couldn't sell many plots," Anderson said. "He did sort of misjudge the location. ... I imagine that land was just sold off as farmland."

Paper town

Most of the lost towns disappeared because of similar problems with bad planning, bad location, limited transportation or a lack of natural resources.

"A lot of them were just places that sprang up," Anderson said. "Like Scandia. It was on the eastern side of Lake Waconia and it was just a bunch of Swedish Baptists."

Some ghost towns, such as Mound St. Clair, never even existed.

Anderson said St. Clair is a "paper town" because it never progressed beyond the imagination of the businessman who wanted to build it.

The founder plotted out the town and planners were so confident of its success that it was placed on maps of the day.

"They sold six lots and nothing was ever built there," Anderson said. "The land was bought, it was plotted, but it was never built. But it exists on historical maps. You can look and see St. Clair there, but there was never a single building there -- no town at all."

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280

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