There are few Minnesota cities with the rich history of Northfield, and there are fewer still that have done such a wonderful job of preserving their historic treasures. You’ll see many examples of 1800s architecture throughout the community, and history buffs will especially enjoy the detailed exhibits and information at our Historical Society Musuem, colleges and historic downtown district.
In January 1855, John Wesley North set out from St. Anthony Falls, MN, to settle land recently ceded by the Dakota tribe. North chose the Cannon River valley because of the great potential for hydrologic power and abundant natural resources. He arrived at the site that would become Northfield with a few people, including his brother-in-law George Loomis. Loomis and North built a sawmill, then a gristmill and a bridge. When plotting Northfield, they ignored the river’s natural curvature and platted the town in 95 ridged blocks.
John and his wife, Ann Loomis North, attracted many likeminded people to Northfield. These were people who believed in women’s rights, temperance, the abolitionist movement, education and helping your fellow neighbor. The financial panic of 1857 brought the North’s to near financial ruin, and in 1859 the North’s good friend Charles Wheaton agreed to buy the North’s Northfield assets.
Wheaton produced flour at North’s gristmill for a few years, and then sold it to Jesse Ames and Sons. Ames enlarged the mill, and at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, he won the straight flour category for best flour in the United States.
In 1927, Jesse Ames’ son Adelbert Ames sold the mill to L.G. Campbell, and Northfield became the headquarters for the Campbell Cereal Co., which produced Malt-O-Meal cereal. The company moved its headquarters to Minneapolis, but kept its production facility in Northfield. Today, Malt-O-Meal still operates the Ames Mill, and Northfield is the only place in the world where its hot cereal is produced.
In 1856, the first school in Northfield was founded with 25 students reporting. In 1874, the Northfield independent school district was formed, and in 1877, the first graduating class consisted of seven girls and no boys.
Northfield College was founded in 1866 by the Minnesota Conference of Congregational Churches. Preparatory classes began in 1867, and in 1871 the college changed its name to honor a benefactor, William Carleton. At the time of his gift of $50,000 it was the largest gift to a college in the western United States. Today, Carleton’s enrollment is around 1,900 students.
The St. Olaf School was formed in 1874 by Rev. B.J. Muus, a Lutheran pastor; Harold Thorsen, a Northfield businessman; and three others. The original purpose of the school was to educate Norwegian immigrants, both men and women, to prepare them for life in the new country. The school was initially located in the public school buildings, and for a few years all of Northfield’s educational institutions were within three blocks of each other. College classes began in 1886, even though the college was not officially formed until 1889. Today, St. Olaf’s enrollment is around 3,000 students.
Attempted Bank Raid
At roughly 2:00 p.m., September 7, 1876, eight men rode into town, intent on robbing the First National Bank of Northfield. It would later be called a textbook James-Younger bank robbery, and it began with three members of the gang entering the bank and announcing that it was a holdup. The three desperados ordered three bank employees to open the safe, but were told the vault was locked and couldn’t be opened.
On the street, local citizens began to arm themselves when a merchant discovered the robbery in progress. Upon their discovery, two gang members sprang to their horses and began shooting and yelling at the townspeople to leave the street. This forced the other three robbers into the fray. The first to fall was a Swedish immigrant named Nicholas Gustafson, who remained on the street because he did not understand English.
The battle lasted only seven minutes, but when it was over two robbers lay dead in the street and two more were badly wounded. Six outlaws fled south, and the largest manhunt at that time in U.S. history ensued. The Younger brothers were captured and Charlie Pitts was killed near Madelia, MN. Jesse and Frank James escaped the posse and made it to Missouri.
The heroes that day included J.S. Allen, A.R. Manning, Henry Wheeler and others. But the biggest hero was Joseph Lee Heywood, who died because he would not open the bank vault and betray the trust of the bank owners and his fellow Northfield citizens. It is the extraordinary courage of these townspeople that we honor on the weekend after Labor Day each year during Defeat of Jesse James Days.