The James-Younger gang met its match in a frontier bank.

All Images Courtesy Northfield CVB Unless Otherwise Noted

At the centennial of the nation’s founding, Northfield, Minnesota, was a bucolic river town on the plains 40 miles south of St. Paul with a tidy business block, flour mill, railroad and two small colleges.

Hardworking immigrant farmers—Norwegians, Swedes and Czechoslovakians—populated the area. They went to church, bought goods in Northfield and kept their earnings at the First National Bank of Northfield.

Roughly two months after Independence Day in 1876, the James-Younger gang disturbed Northfield’s tranquility when eight bandits rode into town to rob the bank. A trio entered, demanding that clerks open the vault.


Frank and Jesse James (above and below) escaped Northfield on September 7, 1876, but the rest of the gang was not so lucky. Bob, Cole and Jim Younger were captured, while Clell Miller, Bill Chadwell and Charlie Pitts were killed in the ill-fated raid. The failed raid is reenacted every year at the Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield. All Images Courtesy Northfield CVB Unless Otherwise Noted/Jesse and Frank James Photos Courtesy True West Archives


“Get your guns, boys! They’re robbing the bank,” cried hardware merchant J.S. Allen after witnessing the robbery in progress and alerting bystanders.

Inside, a gang member pulled a knife on Joseph Lee Heywood who refused to open the vault. “Damn you! Open the safe or we will slit your throat from ear to ear.”

Heywood still resisted. The bandits fatally shot him and fled with a small amount of cash from the teller’s cage.

Outside the bank, armed townsfolk killed two bandits, shot one of their horses and wounded Cole and Bob Younger. Jesse and Frank James escaped, but after a weeks-long manhunt a posse killed another gang member and captured the three Younger brothers at Hanska Slough, a swampy area in southwest Minnesota.

The brave men of Northfield brought down the James-Younger gang, which for a decade terrorized frontier towns, robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches, and eluding capture.


The historic Scrivner Building is home to the Northfield Historical Society Museum.


The magnitude of Northfield’s brave stand against the James-Younger gang is long remembered in these parts of Minnesota. In fact, the First National Bank of Northfield is a museum operated by the Northfield Historical Society. Plus, Defeat of Jesse James Days has been celebrated here for 76 years. An elaborate reenactment of the seven-minute robbery and shootout packs Northfield’s historic district with visitors the weekend after Labor Day.

Local historian Tim Freeland said the bank is largely intact as it was on September 7, 1876. The museum is a popular year-round attraction in Northfield.

“Everything is original down to the floorboards, the spittoons, the clock, the old stove and the hanging lights,” he said, while the teller cages were rebuilt based on photographs taken the day after the robbery.


The Defeat of Jesse James Days was founded in 1947 and is one of the city’s most popular events every Labor Day Weekend


One grim reminder of the violent attack is blood splatters on a bank ledger from the shot that killed Heywood, the town hero.

“He would not give up the money, $15,300, which was the life savings of a lot of farmers,” Freeland said. “It was Carleton [College] money and St. Olaf’s [College] money.”

The $15,300 in the bank vault was the equivalent of about $450,000 today, he added.

Defeat of Jesse James Days, with the shorthand of DJJD, is set for September 4-8. Four reenactments will be staged Saturday with two each on Friday and Sunday. Forty-one events are planned, including a popular PRCA Rodeo, fine arts festival, antique car show, soap box derby, carnival rides, music, food trucks and a tractor pull.


The PRCA Defeat of Jesse James Days Rodeo is held every year in conjunction with the five-day annual event.


Of course Northfield is worth a visit that goes beyond that tragedy of 1876. St. Olaf and Carleton colleges have beautiful campuses and bring art and cultural resources to this city of about 20,000 residents.

Carleton includes the Pearlman Teaching Museum with an impressive art collection and the Weitz Center for Creativity, a 250-seat theater.

St. Olaf is known for its choirs, orchestras, bands and the St. Olaf Christmas Festival. The college’s Flatten Art Museum has more than 4,000 paintings, photographs, sculptures and ceramics.

The Northfield Arts Guild has a performing arts theater and several art galleries in town.


Visitors to Northfield will enjoy the natural beauty of the parks near the city, including this beautiful waterfall at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.


Outdoor activities include biking and hiking along the Cannon River, at the Cowling Arboretum and a short hike to a waterfall at nearby Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Seasonally, cross country skiing and snowshoeing are popular winter activities in Northfield.

In summer, the Riverwalk Market Fair on Saturdays from June to October features vendors with fresh produce, flowers, art and crafts, and musical entertainment.

And what would a college town be without libations at local watering holes? Options include the Loon Liquor Distillery, Tanzenwald Brewing Co. and Imminent Brewing.

Where History Meets the Highway

Northfield Chamber of
Commerce and Tourism



Northfield Chamber of Commerce & Tourism, 19 Bridge Square.



Visit the Northfield Historical Society Museum within the First National Bank of Northfield where a brave bank clerk refused to open the vault for the James-Younger gang.



Try the Swedish meatballs or fried walleye at the Ole Store Restaurant, a Northfield landmark established in 1889.



Visit the Loon Liquor Distillery for a craft cocktail or pick up a bottle of Loonman vodka, gin, rum or Loonshine whiskey.



Start the day with a cup of joe along with a bagel, muffin or croissant at Goodbye Blue Monday Coffeehouse.

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