With a menacing stare and a big ax, Smoke Shop proprietor Stanley “Tiny” Johnson stood beside two men locked into the “Jesse James Days Kangaroo Court Stockade.” The place was Horsecollar Park (now Bridge Square) and the caption on the photo in the Northfield News of Aug. 19, 1948, said that these two “clean-shaven characters” had been thrown in the stock “as a horrible lesson to those who still haven’t forsworn the razor for Jesse James Day.”
The first “Jesse James Day” was held in Northfield on Saturday, Sept. 11, 1948, part of a two-day Jaycee Fall Festival which had started in 1946. Maggie Lee, longtime editor and writer at the Northfield News, wrote on Sept. 11, 1992, that she remembered there had been opposition to naming a day for Jesse from people who “wanted to sweep the whole Northfield Bank raid under a rug, emphasizing only the cultural advantages of our city.” But, ever the historian, she felt it was important to remember how the “gang was repulsed” and how “the Northfield experience was a turning point in frontier lawlessness.” The first button to use “defeat of” with the name Jesse James for the event came out in 1954, so “Defeat of Jesse James Days” (DJJD) had taken over very early to emphasize the heroism of townspeople on Sept. 7, 1876, when the James-Younger gang attempted to rob the First National Bank.
That first year, only one raid re-enactment was held at 2 pm in front of the Jesse James Café, now the site of the Northfield Historical Society. Members of the South St. Paul “Hook ‘Em Cow” riders joined locals, including Chuck DeMann of Dundas. DeMann portrayed Henry Wheeler, the Northfielder who had coolly dispatched outlaw Clell Miller from a window of the Dampier Hotel. (The DeMann family, led by Chuck’s son Chip, continues to re-enact the robbery today.) A parade followed which provoked “cheer after cheer,” according to the Northfield News on Sept. 16. “Well-drilled marching units and spectacular floats swung along Division” and an American Legion band even featured the 1948 national juvenile baton champion, 11-year-old Gary Smith. Estimate of spectators ranged up to 10,000.
At the end of the parade came a float carrying Northfield News editor Bill Schilling toting a gun and wearing a Buffalo Bill costume, along with a funeral box labeled “Jesse James.” The words “You Can’t Buffalo BILL” were attached to the box. This parade entry was Schilling’s response to a 101-year-old man in Oklahoma named J. Frank Dalton who had sworn that he was the real Jesse James. Dalton claimed it was an imposter who had been killed in Missouri by gang member Bob Ford in 1882. Sensing a publicity bonanza, the Jaycees invited Dalton to come to Northfield but then balked at the $1,000 fee. Schilling said in his column of Sept. 16 that although Dalton offered to “cut his fee to $750,” he met the “same fate as the 1876 Jesse of old – Northfield turned a deaf ear to him.” (Dozens of men had purported to be the real Jesse, but a DNA test in 1995 confirmed the real Jesse James was the one killed in 1882.)
Jaycees had been “encouraged” to grow beards to promote the festival and when it was all over, Maggie Lee wrote, “Doggone! Now I’m having trouble figuring out who these guys are without their beards. Seems a little hard to settle back to earning a living after the week-end of whoop-te-doo.”
By the time of the 6th annual fall festival in 1952, more than 200 children (product of the post-war “baby boom”) joined in a Saturday “kiddie” parade of their own, bringing everything from doll buggies to pet goats. The Jaycees raised money for a swimming pool fund and a tug of war between residents of Dundas and Northfield ended in a tie, when referees could not agree on a winner. A tragedy occurred in 1953 when a fire truck overturned after the parade with members of a drum and glockenspiel corps aboard, killing one young woman.
In August of 1955, Northfield’s town centennial replaced the raid commemoration and a Harvest Queen Ball was held instead in 1957. But in 1959, Northfield had a “local boy makes good” story which was celebrated to the hilt in a four-day DJJD event. The town had its own budding movie, television and recording star in Johnny Western, who was returning home to see his parents, John and Dolly Westerlund (his father was a physical education teacher in Northfield public schools). Western had taken a new last name when he played guitar and sang country tunes from the Northfield studios of Faribault’s KDHL radio and was deemed the youngest DJ and singer on American radio by Billboard Magazine. By the time Western was 20, the ultimate singing cowboy, Gene Autry, had signed him and in 1958 Western started what would be a lengthy playing and recording career with Johnny Cash (ending in 1997).
On Thursday, Sept. 17, 1959, Western appeared at the Grand Movie Theater for the showing of the United Artists movie Fort Bowie, in which Western had a supporting role and for which he composed the title song. The next night, Western emceed the Miss Northfield pageant and sang the theme song Ballad of Paladin which he had composed and sung for the popular weekly TV show Have Gun Will Travel. On Saturday, the day Don Piccard was involved in a DJJD manned balloon flight, Western presided over both the parade and the Queen’s Harvest Ball and then emceed a horse-pulling contest at the Eugene Schrader farm on Sunday.
Western, who attributes his love of frontier spirit to Northfield, has returned several times for DJJD, most recently in 2005 when he brought along Hollywood cowboys who had appeared in the golden age of westerns. Western has performed all over the world and has had ten Hall of Fame inductions, but he has never forgotten where he got his start. In 2008, he wrote to the Entertainment Guide that “Northfield was the greatest place in America to have grown up” and he hoped that the young people of Northfield “appreciate how very lucky they are” to live in his hometown.
In 1961, the Chamber of Commerce took over DJJD from the Jaycees. It was also the year when the Rainbow Saddle Club members who were portraying the outlaw gang ran into a bit of unexpected trouble during a raid re-creation. The bank door had been locked for the weekend. They could not get inside and Roy Good recounted how he had to carry on just by firing blanks at the door. This year brought the first of many theater productions by the Northfield Arts Guild Little Theatre group. Jesse James Slipped Here, a melodrama, was followed in subsequent years by variety shows and musicals such as Oklahoma!, Hello, Dolly!, Oliver! and other shows without exclamation marks in the titles.
Although political “glad-handing” was discouraged during parades, two well-known politicians with Northfield connections were welcomed: former Minnesota governor and senator Edward Thye in 1967 and Congressman (and later governor) Al Quie in 1974. (Quie also became the first Joseph Lee Heywood award recipient in 1983, an award given for distinguished service in honor of the heroic Heywood, who was slain during the bank robbery. This award was also given to former Minnesota governor and Northfield native Karl Rolvaag in 1987, in abstentia.) In 1970, former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota flew into Carleton’s Laird Field by helicopter, rode in the parade and sat on the reviewing stand with Mayor and Mrs. Marvin Grundhoefer.
A public relations tour brought actor David Canary to town in 1972. Canary, who portrayed Candy in NBC’s western show Bonanza, was said to have been astonished that there were no traffic signals in Northfield.
Although there had been rodeos before (including the first year in 1948), the first Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) sanctioned DJJD rodeo was held on Sept. 7, 1974, at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault, due to space needs. That rodeo featured bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding, calf roping and steer wrestling. Rodeos became one of the most popular DJJD events when they came back to Northfield and were led by the Sutton family of South Dakota. (See story by Lynn Ziegler, co-chair of the DJJD rodeo, in this issue.)
The U.S. bicentennial year 1976 was also the centennial year of the 1876 bank raid and there was a lot to celebrate in town during DJJD. The newly formed Northfield Historical Society had been able to purchase the Scriver Building, open a museum and start restoration of the site of the raid. The popular Northfield Arts Guild Arts Festival was held both Saturday and Sunday and the full-fledged musical melodrama Jesse, written specifically for the Northfield Musical Theater (formed in 1974), was performed for the first of many succeeding times. Businessman Sid Freeman of Northfield and Barbara Peterson, Miss USA (a St. Olaf student), were the parade marshals. And Chip DeMann, who had been participating in raid re-creations since 1970 when he was 16, took over the reigns as leader of the James-Younger Gang of bank raiders, the exalted position he still holds today. He and his wife Jane Moline, who coordinates the bank raid re-enactments, make sure the raids are as close to historical accuracy as possible.
A special attraction of the DJJD of 1976 was a Sunday performance at the Grand by singer Marilyn Sellars, Dundas native and Northfield High graduate. It was a “local girl makes good” story this time around. The talented Sellars, who had been Miss Northfield at age 17 and a finalist in the Miss Minnesota Pageant, had been parade marshal during a rainy DJJD parade in Sept. of 1973 and that December she recorded her first Nashville album, One Day at a Time, which ended up running for 43 straight weeks on Billboard charts and even overtook an Elvis Presley album in Oct. of 1974. She was named Best New Female Artist of the Year in 1975 by Cashbox Magazine. So when she returned in 1976, she sang for a welcoming and jubilant crowd of hometown fans.
Sellars has sung on the stages of both the old and new Grand Ole Opry, headlined with the likes of Bob Hope, Red Buttons and Bobby Vinton, performed in 40 countries around the world and for three presidents and, like Johnny Western, has not forgotten her roots. She and Western returned for their friend Maggie Lee’s 90th birthday party at the Grand Event Center in 2011 and Sellars sang at both “Wear Purple for Maggie Lee Day” held in Northfield in 2012 and at her funeral in 2013. (By the way, Maggie Lee won the Heywood award in 2009 and was parade grand marshal back in 1981. She used to joke about the “blank looks” she got from out-of-towners because she was paired with co-celebrity grand marshals Carl Eller and Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings.)
Northfield merchants have gotten into the act over the years, beyond the whiskering up of 1948. In 1980, salespeople at Jacobsen’s Department Store wore nightcaps for a Midnight Madness sale, offering discounts to those who would buy sleeping garments and wear them out of the store. Quality Bakery, which has been owned and operated by the Klinkhammer family since 1949, continues its tradition of making cookies and donuts in the shape of feet – “De-feet of Jesse James” – during the celebration.
In 1983, Al Quie rode on horseback as marshal of the DJJD parade, leading a pack horse. Having just returned from a trail ride in the West, Quie also participated in the bank raid re-creations and is still a member of the James-Younger Gang. The popular comedian George Gobel was the 1983 celebrity grand marshal, hosted by his friends Sid and Lydia Freeman.
“An eyefull of baby-oiled muscular humanity” was the way the Northfield News of Sept. 13, 1984, described a special southern Minnesota premiere Bodybuilding Showdown produced for DJJD by the Fitness Connection of Faribault in 1984. Sean Larson of Northfield took third place in the men’s tall division and a former Northfielder, Jeanine Plante, was runner-up in the women’s short competition.
The highlight of the1985 rodeo and parade was 1600-pound Chief the Buffalo, billed as the world’s only trained buffalo. During the rodeo, Chief did tricks such as balancing nimbly on a footstool on top of a trailer. Trainer Jerry Olson of South Dakota introduced his pet Thursday night to the sights and sounds and smells downtown, from Pronto Pups to gyros to pitas. However, the Sept. 12, 1985, Northfield News noted that “Olson was careful not to steer his companion too close to one stand where the sign read ‘Buffalo Burgers.’”
“You are dying! From the instant you are born you begin to die, and the calendar is your executioner!” Starting in 1986 and continuing for more than a decade and a half, this startling news was delivered between raid re-enactments by an old-fashioned snake oil salesman dressed in red tails and black top hat. Known as Dr. Visty, he and a nubile assistant, Lilly Hangtree, peddled an elixir said to prolong life by curing a host of ills: dyspepsia, liver complaints, pimples, PMS, impotence, kidney disease, dizziness, affairs of the heart, zits, rheumatism, headaches, lung trouble, catarrh, impure blood and neuralgia. Small bottles of Dr. Visty’s Vitalic Elixir (healthful Northfield water) were sold for $1 in the Northfield Historical Society museum, where visitors might be enticed to spend more money and time. (Northfield attorney David Hvistendahl, my brother, preserves memories of the medicine show era in the Dr. Visty Suite above Froggy Bottoms.)
By 1989, the Defeat of Jesse James celebration was drawing about 100,000 people with the combination of horses and gun fighting in the raid re-enactments always supplying dramatic moments. In 1991, the 5 pm re-enactment was proceeding as usual, with current DJJD Board Chairman and KYMN radio icon Wayne Eddy portraying Clell Miller, one of the bandits killed during the raid. Along with being one of the founders of the Northfield Historical Society, Eddy has been instrumental in DJJD activities through the years, including instituting the first beer garden of 1969 and bringing in the DJJD re-enactors and royalty from the Ambassador Scholarship program to visit grade schools. As described in the Northfield News of Sept. 11, 1991, Eddy fell as planned from his horse onto the pavement on the east side of Division Street. When a townsperson rolled him over onto his back, “the hammer of his gun struck one of the gun’s cartridges, which was filled with black powder for blanks. The fire from the blank ignited the gun’s five other cartridges and those ignited the rounds that were attached to Eddy’s belt.”
Eddy told me, “I actually rose three inches from the ground from the explosions of the cartridges. The brass cartridges were packed for smoke, fire and noise effect.” The long duster coat he was wearing caught fire and Eddy pulled it off and started jumping up and down on it to put out the fire. At first, people were laughing, thinking it was part of the show. But it was soon clear this was not part of the script. Eddy realized that his pants and underwear were on fire, as well, so he had to extinguish that fire also. Eddy’s horse, named Dollar, never left his side (it was the horse John Wayne had ridden in the movie The Shootist, so obviously had experience with dramas). Eddy then rolled up the duster, tied it to his saddle and rode Dollar to the corral which was located behind the Archer House. He was taken immediately to the hospital where he was treated for second-degree burns to his waist and buttocks.
Ever the trouper, Eddy showed up at 7 pm that night to announce Drum and Bugle Corps competition. Eddy told me, “The formality of the event went down the tubes” as the painkillers kicked in, rendering him “a little spacey.” The next year he rode in the parade with small fire extinguishers attached to his saddle.
In 1996, Don McRae, who had announced raid re-enactments for 38 years, died and at the end of a DJJD raid that year, the gang saluted him while bagpipes played. A similar salute was given in 2013 to Dan Freeman, who succeeded McRae as announcer.
Horses have always had starring roles during DJJD so it should not be surprising that the famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses were grand marshals of Sunday parades in 1997 and 2006. They also appeared at the rodeo and, avoiding festival food, each of the giant horses consumed 50 to 60 pounds of hay each day.
The 125th anniversary of the raid was celebrated by the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra at Carleton’s Laird Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2001, with a concert of pieces by Northfield composers Dan Kallman, Phillip Rhodes and Arthur Campbell, concluding with the 1812 Overture and fireworks. Just two days later came the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
I moved to Northfield from New York in 2004 so have experienced 10 Defeat of Jesse James Days, including many of those as a member of the Senior Posse which gives tours of the museum. Perhaps the most memorable year for me was 2005 when James Ross, the great-grandson of Jesse James, came to town to be the grand marshal of the parade. Ross was on the other side of the law from his famous relative, having served as judge of Orange County Superior Court in California from 1983 until he retired in 1995. Judge Ross spent two evenings at Froggy Bottoms River Pub, owned by my brother David, with current James-Younger leader Chip DeMann. Ross found his favorite Scotch on the menu and, after fortifying himself with it, had his first experience with karaoke, joining me and Mary Casey to sing, It Had to Be You, Singing in the Rain and Swanee. During that DJJD weekend he was continually attired in cowboy boots and hat and admitted he was a “cowboy wannabe.” He told everyone he was glad the citizens of Northfield had missed Jesse when they fired on the gang and killed two. In the parade on Sunday, he showed off equestrian skills by riding Casey’s horse Magee. Judge Ross died at the age of 80 in March of 2007. In 2008, another Jesse James descendant, his great-granddaughter Betty Barr, presided over DJJD festivities.
One has to wonder what their great-grandfather Jesse would have thought of all this. DJJD has become the largest all-volunteer community celebration in Minnesota. Jesse was what you might call a “publicity hound” at times during his nefarious career, so perhaps he would have approved. But I am sure he would have argued against adding “Defeat of” to the title “Jesse James Days.”