Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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


Lots happening in Faribault (and next-door Northfield) this weekend September 9, 2016

WHETHER YOU’RE SHOPPING for fresh food or antiques or looking for some free family fun this weekend, you’ll find them all in Faribault.

A Minnesota souvenir.

Flea markets yield all types of finds, including commemorative plates like this one from an area flea market. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday and continuing until 2 p.m., vendors will offer antiques, collectibles, crafts, art and more on the Rice County Historical Society grounds, 1814 N.W. Second Avenue, during the RCHS Fall Flea Market. I’ve attended the event several times and enjoy not only the treasure sleuthing but also visiting with friends. If you want to learn about local history, the RCHS Museum of History will be open, too, with free admission during the market.

All ages flocked to the market for Family Day.

Family Day at the Faribault Farmer’s Market in September 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Also along Second Avenue, but blocks away in Central Park near Faribault’s downtown, two more events are slated for Saturday. The Faribault Farmer’s Market celebrates Family Day with games, freebies, a scavenger hunt and more from 9 a.m. – 11 a.m. The market itself runs from 7 a.m. – noon. I attended Family Day last year and was pleased with this family-focused addition to the market. It adds an extra element of fun and education and attracts younger people.



When the farmer’s market closes, more fun begins in Central Park with RecoveryFest, an event “to celebrate the positive impact of recovery from chemical dependency.” Music, kids’ activities, art, speakers, a bean bay tourney, food and more are part of the celebration that ends at 9 p.m.

The James-Younger Gang shooting it out during The Defeat of Jesse James parade perhaps five years ago.

The James-Younger Gang shooting it out during The Defeat of Jesse James parade. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2009.

Through-out the weekend, our neighbors to the north in Northfield continue to celebrate The Defeat of Jesse James Days. From bank raid re-enactments to a rodeo to a carnival to the grand finale parade (at 2 p.m. Sunday) and way more, the DJJD is jam-packed with activities commemorating the defeat of the notorious outlaw and his gang in this southeastern Minnesota community in 1876.

Whatever you choose to do this weekend, enjoy. In a week that’s been especially difficult here in Minnesota, we need to find joy in time with family, with friends, and with others in our community. We need to appreciate one another. And life.

TELL ME: What are your plans for the weekend?

© Copyright 2016 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


In which I learn a lot about the James-Younger Gang bank raid in Northfield September 3, 2012

CHRISTIAN HAKALA WEAVES the story of the bank robbery with the skills of a seasoned storyteller, his voice rising as the tension mounts, his hands gesturing, his eyes locking with those of a rapt audience.

Looking through a front window of the Northfield Historical Society museum toward Division Street.

It is Sunday afternoon and I am with a small group touring the Northfield Historical Society. I have come here with my husband to view the temporary U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 exhibit as it relates to Rice County.

The James-Younger Gang re-enactors riding in The Defeat of Jesse James Days parade perhaps five years ago.

But I find myself, instead, captivated by Hakala’s intriguing play-by-play account of the James-Younger Gang bank robbery of September 7, 1876, as he leads us through the historical society and into the bank. I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve never visited this museum, site of perhaps the most historic bank robbery in U.S. history, even though I live only 15 miles away and once worked briefly as a newspaper reporter in this town.

This week some 100,000 visitors, according to Hakala, are expected in Northfield for the annual Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration September 5-9.

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.

The former history teacher, and now a fund raiser at Carleton College in Northfield, serves on the historical society board, volunteers as a tour guide and role plays a townsperson in the annual re-enactments of the bank robbery. His knowledge of the crime is precise, right down to the minute on the original bank clock, stopped at 1:50 p.m., the time of the deadly and unsuccessful robbery.

The front of the original First National Bank of Northfield. I didn’t photograph the entire building as the sidewalk in front of the bank was torn up and blocked for installation of sidewalk poetry.

It was all over in seven minutes with four shot dead, including acting cashier Joseph Lee Heywood who refused to allow the robbers into the vault; Swedish immigrant Nicolaus Gustafson; and outlaws Clell Miller and William Chadwell.

The gun confiscated from Cole Younger when he was captured two weeks later near Madelia. I shot this glass-encased weapon in available light, without a tripod and without flash, meaning quality is not there in this image.

Not until the end of the tour does Hakala reveal that efforts are currently underway to exhume and determine if the presumed body of gangster Miller, buried in his home state of Missouri, truly is Miller.

Hakala explains: Then-medical student Henry Wheeler, who shot Miller from an upper story level of a building across the street from the bank, dug Miller from his grave and shipped the body from Northfield to his Michigan medical school for dissection and study. Later, Wheeler would return the supposed body of Miller to his family in Missouri. But, as the story goes, Wheeler kept a skeleton, purported to possibly be Miller, in a closet of his Grand Forks, N.D., medical practice office. That skeleton is today owned by a private collector.

The Miller family, Hakala says, is cooperating in proposed plans to positively identify the body buried in Missouri via forensic testing. The body was badly decomposed and thus not identifiable by the time it was received by the Miller family for burial.

Wheeler’s actions, Hakala further says, would not have been all that unusual for the time period with a likely attitude of “I killed the guy. He’s mine.”

This recent development simply adds to the mystery and drama and varying versions of events and details which have long accompanied the James-Younger bank raid in Northfield. Hakala, a northeastern Minnesota native who has also lived and taught in Missouri, knows how perspectives and stories differ based on source locations.

Yet, Hakala assures that the minute-by-minute account he relates of the actual bank robbery is based on the eyewitness testimony of a bookkeeper, collaborated by a teller who also witnessed part of the hold-up.

The only portion of the original bank you’ll see in this post is to the right in the background, caught when I was photographing this display case in the adjoining museum space which is in a separate building.

I can’t possibly share with you here the entire scenario Hakala presented in his tour on Sunday. Nor can I show you images, because photography is not allowed inside the original First National Bank of Northfield. But I can tell you that walking upon the very same rough floor boards trod by outlaws with a 10-year history of successful raids on trains and in banks, eying the massive black vault (closed, but unlocked at the time of the crime) and seeing blood stains on the bank ledger makes an impression.

These two items in a display case caught my attention. On the right is a note written by Cole Younger the day before his trial. When asked who killed Joseph Lee Heywood, he answered. “Be true to your friends if the Heavens fall.” In other words, he wasn’t telling. To the left are spurs worn by outlaw William Chadwell, who was shot and killed on Division Street during the raid.

However, here are some select pieces of information presented by Hakala which I find particularly interesting:

  • Jesse and Frank James’ father was a Baptist minister.
  • The James-Younger Gang invented the “stick ’em up” bank hold-up, conducting the first bank raid during daylight business hours, in which no war was going on, in Northfield.
  • One theory surmises that the James-Younger Gang was trying to get back at the Union by robbing banks.
  • In following with that anti-Union theory, Hakala notes that Union General and post Civil War provisional governor of Mississippi Adelbert Ames was a member of the Northfield family—coincidentally Jesse Ames and sons—which owned the local Ames (flour) Mill. Adelbert’s father-in-law was Benjamin Butler, a Union general much-despised by Southerners. This could explain why the gang targeted Northfield since the Ames’ family had money in the First National Bank.
  • While there was $15,000 in the Northfield bank vault, the outlaws made off with only $26.70 in cash, and not from the vault, which was protected by hero/cashier Heywood.
  • The unarmed Heywood was shot out of frustration and “cold-blooded meanness” (Hakala’s words, not mine). He was also slit across the throat, just enough to scare him, and pistol-whipped.
  • Northfield townspeople were throwing cast iron skillets, tossing bricks and aiming birdshot at the trapped gang members as they tried to ride away from the narrow canyon-like street setting in Northfield.
  • A posse of some 1,000 people formed to track down the gang.  The three Younger brothers were shot and captured in a gun battle at Hanska Slough near Madelia. Charlie Pitts was killed there. Frank and Jesse James escaped to Missouri.
  • Jesse James was killed by a friend and fellow gang member, Robert Ford, in 1882 for the reward money.
  • Postcards featuring photos of the dead outlaws, Clell Miller and William Chadwell, were sold to the public after their bodies were taken to a professional photography studio in Northfield and photographed.
  • It is written into a lease on an apartment across the street from the original First National Bank that re-enactors can use the apartment each year for bank raid re-enactments. An actor is stationed in the upper level room to portray medical student Henry Wheeler shooting, and killing, Clell Miller.

Another shot of the James-Younger Gang re-enactors riding in The Defeat of Jesse James Days parade several years ago.

If you wish to witness the seven-minute bank raid re-enactment, this is the week to do so. Performers will shrug into their long linen dusters, tuck their sidearms in place, saddle up and shoot it out at the Northfield Historical Society Bank Site & Museum, 408 Division Street in downtown Northfield.

Re-enactments are set for 6 and 7 p.m. Friday, September 7—the actual date of the robbery—and at 11 a.m. and 1, 3 and 5 p.m. on Saturday and at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Sunday.

A copy of a wanted poster posted next to the front door of the museum.

For a complete listing of The Defeat of Jesse James Days activities, click here.

For more information about the bank site and museum, click here.

The front of the museum. If you look underneath the white steps, you’ll find three holes ringed in black, supposedly bullet holes made during the raid. It’s conjecture with nothing proven, according to Christian Hakala, who has his doubts about the holes being made by bullets. That’s Division Street on the left.

The original Ames Mill, once owned by Jesse Ames and sons, and today owned by Malt-O-Meal. It’s located around the corner and across the river from the bank. The company’s hot cereal is made here in the old flour mill.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


If only Jesse James had been a beer farmer September 8, 2011

Another craft beer, James-Younger 1876 Rye Ale, made right here in Minnesota honors the defeat of the James-Younger Gang during an 1876 bank robbery in Northfield.

CRAFT BEER LOVERS, here’s a new beer for you, James-Younger 1876 Rye Ale, a limited-edition beer selling this week during Northfield’s annual Defeat of Jesse James Days. Proceeds from beer sales will benefit the Northfield Historical Society.

Now I’m no beer connoisseur, but my husband and I like to try specialty beers such as James-Younger. He bought a six-pack a few weeks ago at Firehouse Liquor in Dundas. While this rye ale doesn’t suit our homogenized taste buds, I’m certain it will appeal to plenty of other folks.

That all said, if you pick up some James-Younger ale, I want you to turn the bottle on its side and read the small print: “Brewed and bottled for Bank Beer Co. by Brau Brothers Brewing Co. LLC. Lucan, MN

OK, then, about Lucan—it’s a town of 220 residents in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota and about five miles from the farm where I grew up. I think it would be accurate to say that Brau Brothers Brewing has put Lucan on the map with its award-winning beers.

As for the Braus, they are three brothers and a Dad who produce craft beers like Ring Neck Braun Ale, Moo Joos, Hundred Yard Dash and my personal favorite, Strawberry Wheat.

Since I’m not too knowledgeable about beer stuff, I emailed Brau Brothers CEO and brewer Dustin Brau to inquire about the James-Younger ale. His family-owned business brewed the beer and co-packaged it for Bank Beer Company, a contract brewery based in Hendricks. That town of 725 lies even further west, in Lincoln County only miles from the South Dakota border.

Anyway, Dustin credits Jason Markkula at Bank Beer for the idea, recipe, marketing and distribution of the James-Younger ale. Brau Brothers brewed and bottled the beer.

And because Dustin clearly knows beer, I asked him to describe James-Younger 1876 Rye Ale: “Basically, a rye pale ale. Not crazy hoppy, but just enough. The spice from the rye comes through a bit, reminiscent of pepper.”

As for the rye, well, it comes right from the Brau Brothers’ fields. And, if you check the company’s Facebook page, you’ll read that the Braus tag this growing and harvesting of rye as “beer farming.” You just have to appreciate brewers who think that way.


FYI: You won’t find James-Younger 1876 Rye Ale just anywhere. Look for it in limited supplies in the Northfield area during the Defeat of Jesse James Days, which continues through Sunday.


Saddle up and ride on over to Northfield for The Defeat of Jesse James Days September 10, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:35 AM
Tags: , , , , ,

THIS WEEKEND, IF YOU’RE IN NORTHFIELD, you’d swear you were in Texas or Wyoming or Montana. This southeastern Minnesota community of about 20,000 transforms into a hang-out for cowboys and cowgirls during The Defeat of Jesse James Days, which runs through Sunday.

From a professional rodeo to a western style steak fry, a theatrical performance of Jesse, bank raid re-enactments and lots more, a western theme prevails. And it’s all to mark the townspeople’s courageous stand 134 years ago against the James-Younger Gang.

On September 7, 1876, the outlaws rode into town intent on robbing the First National Bank. They didn’t expect to find a defiant Joseph Lee Heywood, who refused to open the bank vault. Heywood was killed as were Swedish immigrant Nicolaus Gustafson and two of the would-be robbers.

The restored First National Bank, pictured here, is now home to a museum and the Northfield Historical Society.

A marker at Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church near Millersburg honors Swedish immigrant Nicolaus Gustafson who was shot point blank by outlaw Cole Younger. The church marker tells Gustafson's tragic story.

Since 1948, Northfield has celebrated The Defeat of Jesse James Days, today one of Minnesota’s biggest community festivals. If you’ve never attended, saddle up this weekend and head on out to this historic river town that, as cliché as it sounds, is quaint and charming.

Here, a river walk hugs the Cannon River, inviting visitors to stroll and peruse the artwork set up during the Riverfront Fine Arts Fair Festival this weekend or, on other Saturdays from early June to the end of October, the 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Riverwalk Market Fair. The Market Fair also includes local produce and artisan foods.

This weekend's art fair will be similar to the Saturday Riverwalk Market Fair held from June through October along Northfield's riverwalk in the historic downtown.

Marsha Kolstad Morrill Kitchel displayed her artwork on a recent Saturday during the Riverwalk Market Fair.

A vendor sold fresh-baked fruit tarts at a riverside stand during the summer Saturday market.

Northfield’s abundance of eateries (some with outdoor riverside dining) and homegrown shops with everything from beads to antiques, books, local art and much more, draws visitors into a historic downtown that bustles with activity, but in a leisurely sort of way. Be forewarned, though, that during The Defeat of Jesse James Days, this town is a zoo.

Yet, Northfield is a pedestrian-friendly city where motorists actually yield to pedestrians, where a town square complete with fountain and popcorn wagon and summer concerts seems so “Norman Rockwell,” where the river walkway links a downtown defined by old buildings, where, honestly, you’ll feel comfortably at home.

This stray kitten showed up while I was dining recently on the patio of The Tavern, a downtown Northfield eatery.

And this weekend you’ll feel even more comfortable if you’re sporting the dress code of the day—western attire

Last year when I attended The Defeat of Jesse James Days Sunday afternoon Grand Parade, I spotted more cowboy hats and cowboy boots than I’ve ever seen in a single locale. On nearly every community float, even those from the big city, princesses replaced sparkling strapless gowns and crowns with western shirts, vests and jeans (or denim skirts) and cowgirl hats.

Western attire is protocol for princesses in the Grand Parade, which starts at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

The princesses bring their horses too when they appear in the parade.

They also brought their horses—plush pink ponies, wooden rocking horses, stick horses…with a few twirling lassoes and country western music to boot. Well, you get the picture.

Even the James-Younger Gang showed up with their guns ablazin’ as their horses galloped down Division Street.

Locals dress the parts of the James-Younger Gang for the Grand Parade and bank raid re-enactments, held through-out the weekend. Arrive early if you want to see the downtown shoot-outs.

Despite all that horse and outlaw hoopla, the parade presents one particularly memorable oddity. Northfield-based Malt-O-Meal gives away individual serving packages of dry cereal to parade-attendees.

I’ve received only one better parade freebie in my lifetime. Many years ago in Morrill in central Minnesota, a local bar handed out free cups of beer, which flowed freely from a parade float keg. Now that’s a parade even an outlaw could appreciate.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling