In the short span of seven minutes a century and a half ago, the small town of Northfield, Minn., created some hometown heroes, foiled a bank robbery, precipitated the downfall of a notorious outlaw gang and provided historical fodder for an annual celebration that draws several times its current population in visitors. Welcome to The Defeat of Jesse James Days, held the first weekend after Labor Day. This year’s five-day event will take place Sept. 9–13.
The festival is a commemorative mainstay for Northfield since 1948. It revolves around several reenactments of that historic event, when the townspeople drew arms, thwarted the bank raid and drove the gang out of town, leaving two robbers dead and critically wounding two others.
Included in the festivities are a carnival, classic car show, tractor pulls, professional rodeo, parades, hog roast and vintage baseball match.
“We celebrate the townspeople, not the outlaws,” said T. J. Heinricy, Northfield’s streets and parks supervisor.
Every year the organizing committee presents the Joseph Lee Haywood Award to an outstanding citizen for his or her volunteer efforts or other contributions to the city of 20,000, which has ever since sported the slogan “Jesse James Slipped Here.” The award is named for the bank cashier who refused to open the safe and lost his life in the process.
The Defeat of Jesse James Days is the largest all-volunteer festival in Minnesota and ranks third in size in the state after two Twin Cities annual events. Up to 150,000 visitors attend.
An army of volunteers works hand in hand with the municipality within a system designed to minimize snags. Event organizers are required to fill out a comprehensive application that is reviewed by the police, fire, public works, street and parks departments and the city clerk. Any requests to sell alcohol get an additional looksee by the city council.
The procedure “puts in our mind what to focus on in advance,” said Heinricy, who serves a dual role by also chairing the festival committee. “It brings it to the eye of the council.”
Departments review their respective duties, assess their costs and submit numbers to the council, which decides whether and how much budget money to appropriate.
Sometimes fees are imposed on festival organizers, and sometimes nonspecialized work is performed by volunteers to save municipal expenses.
“Overtime is our biggest cost,” said Heinricy. “But we budget for that annually.” Street closings are posted in advance on the city’s website.
The festival ends Sunday with a chaos of trash and refuse, according to Heinricy. That’s when his department and some volunteers go to work. Starting around midnight, they remove barricades and scour the downtown area.
“By Monday morning, people could ask, ‘Was there something that went on here this weekend?’”