Where the James Gang met a surprise defeat Unexpected: In 1876, the little town of Northfield, Minn., fought back and gained a reputation. Today, it proudly shows off its history and culture.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was a calm September afternoon in Northfield, Minn. A few townspeople strolled up and down the packed-dirt street, tending to business at the livery, the dry-goods store, the bank.

"Who could have suspected," an announcer asked the people on the sidelines, "that violence lurked just a moment away?"

It was 1996 on the sidelines but 1876 on Division Street, where three men in long white dusters had just entered the First National Bank. Men playing Clell Miller and Cole Younger slowly rode down the street, and Miller took up guard at the bank door. But a nosy local man named Joseph Allen tried to get inside; instead of pulling him in, Miller shoved him away, whereupon Allen issued his famous cry: "Get your guns, boys, they're robbing the bank."

Suddenly, the street was filled with thundering hoofs and gunfire. A former Union sharpshooter and an expert hunter happened to be standing nearby; they grabbed rifles and, in a few minutes, Clell Miller was dead. So was William Stiles, part of a rear guard that included Jesse James and Jim Younger. Bob Younger, Cole Younger and Charlie Pitts were wounded.

We didn't see it in the annual re-enactment, but in the real drama, the cashier lay dying next to the vault, shot by Frank James. Joseph Lee Heywood had refused to open the vault.

And just like that, Northfield became "The Little Town that Defeated the Jesse James Gang," although the outlaws regrouped and continued killing and robbing for another six years.

Why did people in this little farm town fight back, when so many others had fled? As the James-Younger Gang found out 120 years ago, there's more to Northfield than meets the eye.

Northfield, today a college town of 15,200, is less than an hour south of Minneapolis/St. Paul. I arrived late on a Thursday afternoon and checked in at the Archer House, a mansard-roofed landmark built the year after the Great Bank Raid. Doors were still open to many of the 36 rooms, so I took a peek at the log-paneled Memories, the Library, the masculine Governors and others.

There was a convivial buzz in the Tavern, the cozy, stone-walled restaurant that's been downstairs since 1877. The most expensive item was roast duck at $11.50; I chose a beer, one of 25 offered, and the jambalaya special.

On the street, people were heading into an old storefront, to an art party at the Northfield Arts Guild. Inside, a gewgaw-encrusted mannequin called "Beaded Bohemian II" was attracting comment. It was billed as interactive; working from a list, I tracked down the fried egg (armpit) and dinosaurs (all over), but not the saxophone and arrowhead.

A musical college

But I didn't have time for the free hors d'oeuvres and wine. I was on my way to St. Olaf College for a free concert by Julia and Irina Elkina, twin-sister pianists from St. Petersburg, Russia, by way of Minneapolis. St. Olaf, founded by Norwegian Lutherans in 1874, is known worldwide for its choirs, orchestras and bands; its annual Christmas Festival is televised by PBS. Nearly every night, there are free concerts and recitals on its handsome hilltop campus.

This one was remarkable. The sisters, wearing matching taffeta gowns and flashing smiles, gave a two-hour program with mesmerizing performance of the Suite No. 1 by countryman Sergei Rachmaninoff. I could hardly believe my good luck; the Elkinas' December concert in the Twin Cities had been sold out for months.

The next morning, I descended to the Archer House lobby for coffee and the paper, and was drawn by the aroma of croissants to adjoining Treats Ltd., where I got one fresh out of the oven. The bakery/deli is one of nine shops in the Archer House; Hattie's, on the other side of the lobby, sells cappuccino.

I needn't have budged, but it was a nice morning for a walk. The other college in town, Carleton, has a 400-acre arboretum just down the road, with a trail that follows the Cannon River, and I spent an hour hiking in the quiet woods, where tracks are groomed for skiers in winter.

It was much noisier at the Carleton Concert Hall, where a controversial sculptor from the South Bronx had drawn a full house to the free weekly Convocation lecture. John Ahearn, part of a month's schedule that also featured Beverly Sills and USA Today founder Al Neuharth, got off easy: After an hour that only touched on the central issue of race, many students were bitterly complaining they hadn't been able to hold his feet to the fire longer. Carleton students are known for independent thinking; this year, Carleton was named ninth-best liberal-arts college in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

I returned to the other side of town for lunch at the Ole Store, an 1889 frame house at the foot of Manitou Heights that's been a grocery and cafe for Oles -- that is, St. Olaf students -- since 1909. I ordered a hamburger, a fabulous piece of three-berry pie and, of course, an Ole Roll, a pecan caramel bun that's so famous it has its own song, sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum."

My last stop was the Northfield Historical Society Museum, which recently bought the old bank building and restored the office to its 1876 look, with the original gilt vault door, desk, clock and plank floor; guns used in the raid by Charlie Pitts and Cole Younger are in a case nearby. Volunteer Orrin Delong showed me a gripping film of the re-enactment, complete with the drama indoors, and discussed some of the many intriguing parts of the story: an old Confederate grudge that may have prompted the gang's foray into Minnesota; smuggled cadavers and a mystery skeleton; the bizarre epilogues to the raid.

Home to senator

The boys from Missouri were only the first in a long line of people who left their mark on Northfield. The St. Olaf Class of 1924 made WCAL-FM the nation's first listener-supported radio station. Thorstein Veblen, whose house was on last month's Tour of Homes, was the economist who coined the term "conspicuous consumption," a concept easy to forget among Northfield's excellent shops. And then there's Paul Wellstone, the unabashed liberal who warmed up as a Carleton professor before Minnesota voters sent him to the U.S. Senate, in November for the second time.

Northfield -- home of cows, colleges and an amazing cast of characters.

If you go

Accommodations: The Archer House has rooms that range from $45 to $150, most with country floral decor. The $55 rooms, while small, are the best value. Of the more expensive rooms, the Manor House, $150, is especially charming. If you want a whirlpool, ask if it's single or double. Call (800) 247-2235, (507) 645-5661.

Re-enactment: Defeat of Jesse James Days, four-day weekend after Labor Day.

Historical Society Museum: Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. $2. (507) 645-9268.

St. Olaf: For a music calendar, call (507) 646-3179. For theater, call (507) 646-3240.

Carleton: For a list of Friday-morning lectures and other events, call (507) 646-4183. Events will resume Jan. 6.

Information: Northfield Visitors Bureau, (800) 658-2548 or (507) 645-5604.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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