Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring those who defeated Jesse James in Northfield September 6, 2022

Posted on the First National Bank in Northfield, now the Northfield Historical Society. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

IF NOT FOR A QUICK-THINKING bank cashier and determined townspeople, things could have ended much differently for the community of Northfield on September 7, 1876, when the James-Younger Gang rode into town intent on robbing the First National Bank.

This is where it all happened. The bank is along Division Street in historic downtown Northfield near Bridge Square. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Markers ring supposed bullet holes on the building exterior. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The James-Younger Gang re-enactors riding in the Defeat of Jesse James Days parade. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

That brave employee, Joseph Lee Heywood, stood up to the robbers who demanded cash from the bank vault. In the end, he lost his life, shot in the head. Likewise, Swedish immigrant Nicolaus Gustafson, unable to understand the outlaws’ commands to get off the street, was shot in the head and died four days later. Outlaws Clell Miller and William Chadwell, (also known as William Stiles) died, too, in the ensuing chaos as they attempted to escape.

A t-shirt displayed in the front window of the Northfield Historical Society (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Townspeople reacted to the bank raid by throwing skillets and bricks and aiming birdshot at the would-be robbers fleeing on horseback through the narrow streets of this river town. Their efforts, along with those of Heywood, effectively ended a long string of bank and train robberies across the country. The three Younger brothers were shot and captured in a gun battle near Madelia while Frank and Jesse James escaped to Missouri.

The Northfield Historical Society entrance by Bridge Square. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

That’s the summary backstory of “The Most Famous Bank Robbery in American History” as tagged by the Northfield Historical Society based in the bank building and with a permanent exhibit, “The James-Younger Gang Bank Raid.” I toured the exhibit in 2012 and highly-recommend it to learn the full story behind this event.

Posted just outside the NHS entrance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A toy horse is part of the front window display at the NHS. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

One of the many events during Defeat of Jesse James Days. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

This historic happening focuses Defeat of Jesse James Days, beginning Wednesday in Northfield. I’ve attended that, too, but mostly stay away given it’s one of the biggest community celebrations in Minnesota, meaning crowds. Honoring Heywood and the brave townspeople of 1876, the September 7-11 event includes a long list of activities like the popular bank raid re-enactments, an Outlaw Run, car and craft shows, an art festival, a rodeo, tractor and truck pulls, a parade and much more. Annually the Joseph Lee Heywood Distinguished Service Award is “given to a Northfield citizen who exemplifies a commitment to public service, which Heywood lived.”

This sign on a building marks the Northfield Cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the midst of all this, I’d suggest a visit to a place away from the crowds. The Northfield Cemetery. Here Joseph Lee Heywood and Nicolaus Gustafson lie buried. A few weeks ago I sought out their graves given my interest and my desire to honor these two men who lost their lives during the failed bank raid.

Joseph Lee Heywood‘s gravesite. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)
A portrait of Joseph Lee Heywood is posted in the Northfield Historical Society window. Although I’m not certain, I believe the other images are of his wife and daughter. He remarried after Mattie died. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Heywood’s marker up close. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The bank cashier’s burial spot is decidedly prominent, his grave marker rising high within a squared off space. Mattie Buffum Heywood, who died in May 1873 at the age of 34, is buried by her 39-year-old husband.

A surprisingly new marker marks the grave of Nicolaus Gustafson. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Finding Nicolaus Gustafson’s grave took effort. Eventually I found it near the cemetery entrance next to the chain link fence along busy Division Street South. I expected an aged tombstone like Heywood’s, not the more modern granite marker with the postscript inscription, A SWEDISH IMMIGRANT SHOT BY ROBBERS. Gutafson, who had just turned 30, arrived in Northfield from neighboring Millersburg on the day of the robbery to sell produce with another Swedish immigrant. He was buried in Northfield because the Swedes did not yet have a church or cemetery. In 1994, the good people of Northfield installed the gravestone gracing his final resting spot. A historic marker at Christdala Church also honors Gustafson.

This marker in front of Christdala Church, rural Millersburg, honors Nicolaus Gustafson. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2020)

In all of this, there is something to be said for the strength of those who are now part of our history. Their actions, whether intentional or not, determined outcomes. For communities. For families. For the future. How many lives were saved because of Joseph Lee Heywood, because of those determined Northfielders, even because of a Swedish immigrant rushing to a street corner?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Northfield: Snapshots of an abbreviated Defeat of Jesse James Days September 17, 2020

The site of the 1876 attempted bank robbery, now the Northfield Historical Society.

 

TYPICALLY, THE DEFEAT OF JESSE JAMES DAYS in Northfield finds Randy and me avoiding this college town only 20 minutes from Faribault. Crowds and congestion keep us away as thousands converge on this southeastern Minnesota community to celebrate the defeat of the James-Younger Gang in a September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank.

 

Waiting for fair food at one of several stands.

 

But this year, because of COVID-19, the mega celebration scaled back, leaving Northfield busy, but not packed. And so we walked around downtown for a bit on Saturday afternoon, after we replenished our book supply at the local public library—our original reason for being in Northfield.

 

The LOVE mural painted on a pizza place in Northfield drew lots of fans taking photos, including me.

 

On our way to Bridge Square, a riverside community gathering spot in the heart of this historic downtown, I paused to photograph the latest public art project here—a floral mural painted on the side of the Domino’s Pizza building by Illinois artist Brett Whitacre. (More info and photos on that tomorrow.)

 

One of the many Sidewalk Poetry poems imprinted into cement in downtown Northfield.

 

Northfield’s appreciation of the arts—from visual to literary to performing—is one of the qualities I most value about this community. As a poet, I especially enjoy the poetry imprinted upon sidewalks.

 

An impromptu concert in Bridge Square.

 

A fountain, monument and the iconic popcorn wagon define Bridge Square in the warmer weather season.

 

Buying a corn dog…

 

I was delighted also to see and hear a guitarist quietly strumming music in the town square while people walked by, stopped at the iconic popcorn wagon or waited in line for corn dogs and cheese curds. Several food vendors lined a street by the park.

 

The Defeat of Jesse James Days royalty out and about.

 

Among fest-goers I spotted Defeat of Jesse James royalty in their denim attire, red bandanna masks, crowns and boots, the masks a reminder not of outlaws but of COVID-19.

 

Photographed through the bakery’s front window, the feet-shaped pastries.

 

Yet, in the throes of a global pandemic, some aspects of the celebration remained unchanged. At Quality Bakery a half a block away from Bridge Square, the western-themed window displays featured the bakery’s signature celebration pastry—De-Feet of Jesse James.

 

A sign outside a Division Street business fits the theme of the celebration.

 

For a bit of this Saturday, it felt good to embrace this long-running event, to experience a sense of community, to celebrate the defeat of the bad guys.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: Northfield historian September 11, 2015

Portrait #39: Christian Hakala

Christian Hakala talks about gang members involved in the Northfield bank raid, pictured to his left: Frank and Jesse James; Cole, Bob and Jim Younger; Clell Miller; William Chadwell; and Charlie Pitts.

Christian Hakala talks about gang members involved in the Northfield bank raid, pictured to his left: Frank and Jesse James; Cole, Bob and Jim Younger; Clell Miller; William Chadwell; and Charlie Pitts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

To say folks in Northfield, Minnesota, appreciate local history would be an understatement.

Take Christian Hakala. He has a Master of Arts in history, has taught history, has served as Northfield Historical Society Board president and volunteers as a tour guide.

During his day job, he’s Director of Individual Giving at Northfield’s Carleton College.

It was in his capacity of NHS tour guide that I met Hakala in September 2012 as he walked visitors through the “Attempted Bank Raid” exhibit. That would be the September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield by the James-Younger Gang. A bank cashier, a Swedish immigrant and two of the outlaws died in seven minutes as townspeople fought back.

Northfield this week is celebrating the heroism of locals during the annual The Defeat of Jesse James Days, an event which is among Minnesota’s most popular community celebrations. DJJD includes bank raid re-enactments. Hakala has participated in those, too, role-playing a townsperson.

If you appreciate history and drama and community celebrations, then head on over to Northfield this weekend. This beautiful historic river city knows how to showcase local history in a big way.

FYI: Click here for more details about The Defeat of Jesse James Days.

Minnesota Faces is featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling