How a shotgun-shooting vigilante named Cora McQuestion became Prior Lake’s first woman mayor

Prior Lake's first female mayor, Cora McQuestion, stands with her 8-year-old daughter, Celia, in 1926.

Prior Lake's first female mayor, Cora McQuestion, stands with her 8-year-old daughter, Celia, in 1926. The Pioneer Press

The year was 1926. Only seven years earlier, the women of the United States had successfully obtained the right to vote. The first woman mayor in Minnesota, Elizabeth Ries, had been elected to lead the city of Shakopee. It was then a waiting game to see who would be the next woman elected to office and where.

Few would have expected it to happen in the tiny lakeside community then called Prior Lake Village. The little burg within the same county as Shakopee was a place that had only managed to be incorporated in 1891, a place where the news cycle revolved around when, inevitably, the local lakeside resort would burn down again, a place that had obtained its first volunteer fire department less than a decade earlier.

But Prior Lake Village had something no other town in Minnesota had: Cora McQuestion.

McQuestion had lived in Prior Lake Village for almost her entire life. She grew up Cora Madden on a farm not too far outside of town and moved into the village proper later in life.

According to an article in the Jordan Independent, before that fateful year, she was largely known as wife and mother Mrs. James McQuestion, “a lady of regal appearance.” She lived in a house across the street from the Prior Lake State Bank. One summer evening in 1922, she glanced out her window and noticed two bandits “prowling” around the bank, seemingly trying to find a way in.

McQuestion calmly fetched the shotgun.

The bandits probably didn’t know what was happening at first. They would have heard a shotgun volley piercing the sleepy night, would have trembled as its echoes died on the summer air. Perhaps they would have turned and seen the woman holding the gun across the street, seen her squared jaw and her steady finger on the trigger. Perhaps they didn’t have the nerve to look. Either way, they fled the scene, leaving the bank’s holdings untouched.

She was thanked for her good deed with a “substantial” reward and a citation from the Bankers Protective Association. But this moment may also have been the first time McQuestion considered what she might do differently if she was in charge of law and order in the village of Prior Lake.

Four years later, she decided to run for mayor, campaigning on a law enforcement program.

McQuestion’s bid in 1926 was already fighting against centuries of belief that a woman’s place was in the home, not at the polls -- let alone in office. And McQuestion was facing this uphill battle in Prior Lake Village, a newly incorporated little town where everyone knew one another and 10 votes might mean the difference between a win and a loss.

Not to mention that her opponent, Ed Muelken, was one of the most popular businessmen around. He had everything it took to win an election in a small town in the ’20s: money, respect, and an unflappable, gentlemanly charisma. His victory was all but a sure thing.

There’s little written about what their campaigns were like -- how many hands they shook, how many promises they made, whether the gender of each opponent was discussed openly or behind closed doors. One thing we do know: The tiny village had an “unusually high” turnout that year -- “probably the heaviest the village ever had,” the Jordan Independent said.

Muelken scored 53 votes -- which would have been more than enough to elect him “under ordinary circumstances.” McQuestion snagged 82.

It’s said in the Independent’s March 11, 1926 edition that Muelken had no hard feelings, that he “gallantly doff[ed] his sombrero to his lady opponent.” The article speculated about whether Shakopee’s “lady mayor” and McQuestion added up to Scott County becoming a “feminist stronghold” in the state. In either case, it said, she was a lady of “strong character, much determination, and proven courage.” The town struck up a band in celebration.

McQuestion served one term as the village’s mayor. There is disappointingly little written about how it went, whether she revolutionized law enforcement, what her major challenges were as a leader. Her obituary in the Independent’s Dec. 17, 1942 edition describes her struggle with illness as long and her funeral as “large.”

Even then, nearly two decades after she was elected, she was remembered as “a woman of strong mind and forthrightness,” and “one of the few women-mayors in the history of the state.”

She was survived by her husband and their only child, a woman named Celia. When the papers took photographs of McQuestion after her election, it was 8-year-old Celia who stood beside her, straight-backed, smiling, as if anticipating a future where a woman holding office was not an unusual event.