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Minnesota's Connection to Jesse James

Dear Diary,
On Sunday, the kids and I walked in the footsteps of history.

Northfield, MN is located approximately 20 miles south from our house with strong ties to the infamous outlaw, Jesse James. In fact, the townspeople are credited with influencing the end of his crime spree.

On September 7, 1876, eight members of the James-Younger Gang rode into Northfield with the intent to rob the First National Bank.

It was supposed to be textbook.

The gang assumed the townspeople would be so naive to the reality of a bank robbery that they would cooperate. When 3 of the desperadoes stormed the bank and ambushed the 3 employees, they were promptly told that the vault door could not be opened.

Out on the street, the townspeople sensed something was amiss and began to arm themselves. A merchant stumbled upon the robbery in-progress and yelled, "Get your guns, boys - they're robbing the bank!"

Two of the gang members got on their horses and began firing their pistols and ordering people to leave the area or be shot. A non-English speaking Swedish immigrant named Nicholas Gustafson didn't understand, and he was mortally wounded. He died 4 days later.

The foiled robbery lasted 7 minutes.

When the smoke settled, two gang members lay dead. Two more were badly wounded. The remaining fled southwest, triggering the largest manhunt in U.S. history at that time. 

Much of what is seen at the site is original. The vault was restored to its former glory, and the actual clock stands frozen at 2 p.m. to commemorate the events that wrote Northfield into the pages of history.

A photograph of the bank as it would have looked at the time of the robbery hangs in the building, and below is how the bank appears after its stunning restoration.

The attention to detail and historical fact takes your breath away.

The kids tried to disobey posted signage that prohibited access to the vault area, as their curiosity got the best of them. It was a tough negotiation.

(Square-head nails!)

Bank teller Joseph Lee Haywood is regarded as a hero. He was shot and killed for refusing to open the fault. His blood stains the pages of the transaction ledger that is now enclosed in glass and covered by a thick, black cloth to preserve the penmanship.

If you look closely at the names recorded, you'll see the name J.S. Allen, the merchant who shouted for the men in town to get their guns. What's remarkable, is after the failed robbery the bank continued recording in the ledger.

In 1870s America, banks didn't carry the peace-of-mind of federally-insured deposits. Bank robberies devastated towns and sent people into financial ruin. A museum employee was kind enough to have a conversation with Landen and Madelyn about the handwritten logs, and how they differ from account management today.

(The large, beautiful windows let in a lot of natural light.)

As Landen read the exhibit notes, and realizing he was standing where Jesse James once stood, it made the stories come alive. I firmly believe that learning in a classroom only takes you so far. When you can connect the lesson to a real life experience, the effect is everlasting and deeply impactful.

Northfield celebrates the bravery of its citizens with a festival every September, the Defeat of Jesse James Days, featuring reenactments and parades. Minnesota may be known for being "nice," but its people have shown that we are not ones to be messed with. That spirit lives on.

Should you find yourself in the Twin Cities, it is worth the drive to visit the site that stopped Jesse James.

The Historic First National Bank of Northfield Site
408 Division Street, Northfield 55057
*There is a small admission fee and specific operating hours, but well worth it for the step back in time. 

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