Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Defeat of Jesse James Days

Defeat of Jesse James Days reenactors on horseback in the Grand Parade.

For those of you from out of town, here's the story. On September 7, 1876, Jesse James and his gang—brother Frank, the Younger brothers, and a few others—rode into Northfield with the intention of raiding the First National Bank. An assistant teller at the bank, Joseph Lee Heywood, died defending the safe, and the valiant townsfolk of Northfield took care of the James Gang. Two members of the gang were killed, and most of the rest were chased down a couple of weeks later. Frank and Jesse James escaped, but the Youngers were packed off to Stillwater state prison. In prison, Cole Younger settled down to making decorative wooden boxes, a couple of which are on display in the Northfield Historical Society Museum.

Veterans from the American Legion in the Grand Parade.

Each year, over the second weekend in September, Northfield commemorates the failed raid and the valiant actions of Heywood and the citizens who stood up to Jesse James. On Bridge Square, in the center of town, you can grease up on fried cheese curds and funnel cakes ("they're funnelicious!") before heading over to the rides at the carnival or watching the reenactment of the bank raid. The James Gang rides in with guns blazing, Heywood is shot, and some brave citizen utters the immortal words, "Get your guns, boys! They're robbing the bank." A lot of blanks are fired. A voice-over on the public address system explains everything.

Northfield High School Band.

The weekend ends with a massive Grand Parade down Division Street, with bands and floats and...well, I'm not sure what else, because I've never stayed through the entire parade. This year, Clara and I went down to watch Will's debut in the Northfield High School marching band (he is one of two oboe players). After the parade, people start to clear out. The carnival packs up, and soon things are back to normal. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who's glad when it's over.

Meanwhile, I finished reading Ron Powers' excellent Mark Twain: A Life. It's written in an easy-going, often humorous style that wears its learning lightly, often going for puns that might have made even Mark Twain groan: about Lew Wallace, the Civil War general and one-hit wonder who wrote Ben Hur, Powers says that his "entire literary career could be summed up as 'Ben Hur, done that'..." Powers has a deep appreciation of Twain's work, but doesn't shy away from presenting an honest portrait of a man who could be selfish, mean, insecure, grumpy and vengeful. Twain was all of those things, but he was also brilliant, humane, and howlingly funny. Powers' biography is a great read.

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