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

 

Floral & finds in Plainview, a creative shop honoring the past June 24, 2022

Detailed signage banners Young Love Floral & Finds in downtown Plainview, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

IT’S THE TYPE OF BUSINESS any small town would welcome. Home-grown. Creative. Beautifully-designed. And busy, at least during my weekend stop.

My view upon entering the shop. Shantelle Speedling is behind the counter/work space at the rear of the display area. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2022)

When I entered Young Love Floral & Finds in downtown Plainview on a Saturday afternoon in mid-May, I paused and took in the scene before continuing up several stairs into this inviting space.

The Mallard Seeds sign came with the building. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In this historic building, which housed the Plainview Hotel, then the First National Bank beginning in 1902 followed by Mallard Seeds, Shantelle Speedling has created a shop that honors the history and stories of this place. She worked in this space for 14 years, testing seed corn germination for the seed company.

If you want a quick peek at local history, view the historic photos posted in the shop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Here, in a side room reserved for small celebrations and crafting parties/make-and-take events, local historic photos fill a well-used bulletin board pocked with holes. A bold, vintage Mallard Seeds sign accents the black-and-white and sepia photo collage.

The closed doors lead to the vault, now a storage space, with the heavy vault door open to the right. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Just around the corner, the in-tact original bank vault now serves as a walk-in storage space and a point of interest in this shop of florals and finds.

Created from wood flowers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2022)

As a trained floral designer, this busy mother of three uses wood (yes, wood) and silk flowers to create stunning centerpieces, bouquets, wreaths and more. I observed a collection of her designs ready for a wedding. She also does casket sprays and florals for any occasion.

A sampling of the artfully-displayed merchandise. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

The “Finds” part of her business is equally as impressive. Home décor and other items, including cow prints which drew my farm girl eyes, are decidedly rural and artfully-displayed. Propped on aged furniture, hung on barn red doors, set atop stacked wooden boxes…

Looking from the back of the shop toward the front. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This place feels like it fits Plainview, a small farming community northeast of Rochester in southeastern Minnesota’s Wabasha County. Speedling took care to retain the historic rural character of the building, right down to keeping the original embossed ceiling, refreshing it with a new coat of paint.

Newspaper stories and more are displayed on a bulletin board in the side event room. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

There’s something to be said for a shopkeeper who values the past—here an historic building—enough to make it work in the present. Speedling has accomplished that. And now she’s imprinting her stories, her history, growing her business in a building where guests once stayed, merchants once banked and seeds once germinated.

Centerpieces created by Shantelle Speedling cram the back countertop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

FYI: Click here to read my previous posts on Plainview, including features on two other businesses, The Shop on Broadway and J.T. Variety & Toys. Please check back for two more stories in my series on this small Minnesota town. You may also be interested in reading these recent posts from neighboring Elgin.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The nuances of Northfield keep me returning August 5, 2020

Beautiful historic buildings grace downtown Northfield, Minnesota.

 

NORTHFIELD. There’s so much to appreciate about this southern Minnesota community with the slogan of Cows, Colleges and Contentment. Cows honor the area’s rich agricultural heritage. Colleges reference the two resident colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf. And contentment frames the feeling in this riverside town rich in natural beauty, history, and a thriving business community and arts scene.

 

A view of the Cannon River in downtown Northfield from the flower-edged pedestrian bridge connecting riverside walkways.

 

Every time I walk along the River Walk aside the Cannon River or meander through the downtown on Division Street, I am struck by the sense of artistic vibrancy. The sense of care in this community. Pride. Hometown loyalty.

 

The display windows of Content Bookstore grab attention in vivid hues. I once participated in a poetry reading here.

 

I see this in shop windows with displays that are creative and eye-catching.

 

Poetry is stamped into sidewalks throughout the downtown district.

 

I read this in words imprinted in cement as part of Northfield’s Sidewalk Poetry Project.

 

One of several musicians performing last Friday evening at The Contented Cow Pub & Wine Bar.

 

I hear this in music performed outdoors at eateries.

 

Art showcased in the exterior lower streetside window of the Northfield Arts Guild.

 

I view this in colorful art.

 

At the Northfield Public Library, this sculpture is changed up to promote the U.S. Census.

 

Bold art.

 

You’ll find plenty of coffee shops in Northfield.

 

And a hometown bakery, Quality Bakery and Coffee Shop.

 

In neon lights marking businesses.

 

A personal note posted in a business that has closed.

 

In publicly posted gratitude.

 

Banners honor the Northfield High School graduates of 2020.

 

And banners that show each individual matters.

 

Novelty tees displayed in the front window of the Northfield Historical Society reference the 1876 bank robbery by the James-Younger Gang.

 

Photographed through the front window of MakeShift Accessories, a handcrafted bracelet.

 

Temporarily closed because of COVID-19, Antiques of Northfield is one of my favorite stops.

 

Northfield draws me back, as a writer and a photographer, to notice nuances of place. The rushing water. The home-grown art. The aged buildings in this community where locals, in 1876, defeated the James-Younger Gang during a raid at the First National Bank.

 

No longer the First National Bank, this historic building houses Merchants Bank. The original First National (site of the bank raid) sits across the street and houses the Northfield Historical Society and Museum.

 

Northfield is simply one of those towns when, each time I visit, I leave feeling better for having spent time there.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling