Main Street Focus

Celebrating the defeat of Jesse James

By Carol Patton

The First National Bank of Northfield, Minn., was stamped into history on Sept. 7, 1876, forever known as the bank that defeated Jesse James.

On that fateful Thursday afternoon, eight men—the James-Younger Gang—rode into town to rob the bank, which has since been restored and still sits in its exact location. The cashier, Joseph Lee Heywood, happened to be filling in for the bank’s president who was out of town. (Heywood is the hero of this story.)

The door to First National’s new vault was wide open when the robbers burst upon the scene. When one tried to enter the vault, Heywood slammed the heavy door against him, but to no avail. The robbers, fearful of being trapped inside the vault, never stepped inside, never tried opening its inside door. The unlocked vault contained $15,000.

In the end, one banker was injured while Heywood was pistol whipped, then shot dead. The townspeople fought back, killing two robbers at the scene and chasing away the rest. Jesse and his brother, Frank, escaped to their family farm in Missouri. Three remaining gang members were later captured and a fourth killed about 60 miles from Northfield.

Quite a story. Quite a bank. To celebrate the occasion, the community of Northfield has been hosting the Defeat of Jesse James Days every year since 1948. The five-day event, held the week after Labor Day, attracts 50,000 people each day.

With $142 million in assets, First National Bank of Northfield is among the event’s biggest sponsors, contributing about $4,000 each year, says Rick Estenson, the bank’s vice president of business development. During that week, he says, some employees don Western attire, wearing blue jeans, kerchiefs, cowboy boots and a T-shirt with a photo of Heywood on the front and this caption on the back: “Jesse James was stopped here.”

“[The town and the bank] really have a done a lot to try and honor the true hero, the cashier, Heywood,” Estenson says.

Although it’s never been tracked, Estenson suspects the town’s special celebration may have attracted new customers. “Indirectly, we get some notoriety that might cause some people to bank with us versus our competition,” he says. “The fact that we have been around for as long as we have … this is really part of our legend.”

Joseph Lee Heywood would have been proud.

Carol Patton is a writer in Las Vegas, Nev.