NORTHFIELD, Minn. (WCCO) – From the studios at KYMN Radio, longtime host Wayne Eddy talks earnestly about Northfield, “the home of cows, colleges and contentment.”
As peaceful as this college town has grown to be, it’s ironic that one of its proudest moments was also its most violent.
It was Sept. 7, 1876, when some of the most notorious outlaws from the south made their way up north.
The James-Younger gang had its sights set on the 1st National Bank, in the heart of Northfield.
Jesse and Frank James, along with Cole, Bob and Jim Younger had a standard method of operation as they raided a town – move in with guns firing to scare everyone off the streets.
“They had never had any resistance,” Eddy said. “What are you going to do when all of a sudden people are pointing guns at you? Well, Northfield showed them what you can do.”
It started inside the bank, where a clerk, Joseph Lee Heywood, refused to open the safe, which held nearly $15,000.
That would be the equivalent of more than $250,000 today, and the FDIC wasn’t around to insure it back then.
“If that money was stolen, it was gone,” said Hayes Scriven, executive director of the Northfield Historical Society. “That was everybody’s hopes and dreams. It was the college money. It was the milling money and Northfield would be a really different place if all the money just disappeared.”
Out on the street, townspeople also recognized what was happening and grabbed their own guns.
They shot and killed two of the outlaws on Division Street, while a posse chased the others out of town and continued to pursue them for weeks.
That bank clerk, Joseph Lee Heywood, is now an honored hero in this area.
He died that day, along with another man who was outside the bank.
Historians disagree on whether Jesse James was inside or outside the bank at the time.
He and his brother, Frank, escaped that day, but the shootout in Northfield brought an end to the James-Younger gang.
To this day, groups of visitors turn out to hear the stories and see the mementoes, especially during the annual “Defeat of Jesse James Days.”
Northfield will again do several dramatic re-enactments of the raid on Sept. 7, 8 and 9, right outside the old bank.
“We get people from Germany, from Sweden, all over from Europe,” said Scriven. “We get people from all over the United States.”
It’s a chance to honor courage and sacrifice, in a town that took swift action when it had to.