The Millersburg Schoolhouse Museum 10 miles west of Northfield tells the story of the Millersburg Swedes and the Sept. 7, 1876 Northfield bank robbery.
The museum, on the historic Dodd Road (Rice County Road 1) across from Boonie’s Grill and dispels myths and spurious information about the robbery based on local documentary information and other sources.
Eyewitness accounts disagree, and conflicting details remain unresolved, about Nicolaus Gustafson, the Swedish immigrant farmer from Millersburg who was shot in Northfield during the robbery and died four days later.
But over the years, inconsistencies and untruths have been recycled time and again by prominent authors—while movies, press accounts, and local reenactments are often pure fiction.
Many Gustafson descendants still live in the Northfield area and have been disturbed by reenactors, and others, misled by incorrect and false information.
Nicolaus Gustafson’s brother Peter and his family were founders of the nearby Christdala Swedish Church and are buried there.
The families simply ask that people stick to the facts and respect the memory of their relative, Nicolaus Gustafson.
The Christdala Church records are online through the Northfield History Collaborative. Original records and old maps are secured at the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault; copies are in the Millersburg Schoolhouse Museum.
• His name is spelled Nicolaus Gustafson in the Christdala and old Swedish records.
• He was a Swede, not a Norwegian, born in Sweden Aug. 20, 1846; immigrated to America in June 1876; lived with his brother Peter and family west of Millersburg.
• Like his brother, he was a sober, reliable, hardworking Swedish immigrant farmer.
• The Millersburg Swedes would travel to Northfield via the old Dodd Road that ran cross-country from Millersburg to Union Lake, then east on the Old Dutch Road into Northfield, crossing the Iron Bridge by the mill and into Bridge Square.
5• Gustafson and his Swedish companions were trading in a store near Fifth and Division when the shooting started; Gustafson went outside and was shot.
• According to witnesses, Gustafson was not drunk and had not been drinking anywhere that day.
• The grand jury that indicted the Younger brothers failed to interview John Olson, the Swedish carpenter who was with Gustafson as he fell, or any member of the Millersburg Swedish community, regarding Gustafson’s death.
• Rice County Attorney George N. Baxter did not even know Gustafson’s name until Nov.14, 1876, two days before the grand jury indictment was issued.
Conflicting accounts, myths, and falsehoods emerged in the days and years following the robbery, based largely on hearsay and fading memories. The result was misinformation in books, movies and reenactments that persists to this day.
The mythology was amplified when “spiced up” Northfield reenactments started, but recent untruths about Gustafson have become outlandish.
In September 2019, a Northfield attorney stated in a radio interview that Nicolaus Gustafson was an alcoholic because “most unmarried 30-year-old Swedes emigrating to America in the 1870s were alcoholics;” and without knowledge or proof he further alleged that the Millersburg Swedes “stopped at a saloon in Dundas on their way to Northfield” because Gustafson needed a drink. Such statements are defaming and totally false.
Other falsehoods were published in the Northfield News on July 16, 2005. An article by a member of the reenactment cast stated that Nicolaus Gustafson was “mistreated, shunned by his family, and lived alone” (total fiction); that before he was shot, a drunken Gustafson was “reclined on a bench near the bank” (totally false); that Gustafson was an “elderly Swedish immigrant” (he was 30 years old). The author retracted and apologized after Del Gustafson wrote an objection refuting each claim. But the damage was done, with new fiction and new untruths posing as new “facts” in the newspaper.
Here are the facts:
The first Swedish immigrants to settle in Rice County formed the Christdala Church on July 18, 1877. Peter Gustafson, brother of Nicolaus, was a founder of the congregation.
Peter and Nicolaus Gustafson were sober, hard-working, and reliable immigrant farmers.
The Gustafson family entrusted Nicolaus to accompany their young nephew on the long and arduous journey to America.
Nicolaus was murdered during the robbery and forgotten. Cole Younger pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
By 1876, 13 Swedish families lived in the Millersburg area. They had endured a severe economic depression and grasshopper plague. They were poor people and would barter in town, trading their produce for farm tools and clothing.
Lingering and latent prejudice against “foreigners” who did not speak English existed by some in Northfield, and resentment toward Swedish immigrants increased as Norway’s drive for independence from Sweden gained strength.
No one had imagined that Millersburg might host a gang of desperate ex-Confederate criminals, but late in the day on Wednesday, September 6, 1876 four heavily armed men rode into Millersburg from the west and spent the night at the local Cushman Hotel.
According to a young boy whose bedroom was in the attic of the hotel, the gang members stopped at the Millersburg Store and asked for directions to Dundas. Charles Cushman was 9½ years old and heard them talk as they cleaned their guns. The old Cushman house still stands, a few hundred yards east of the Schoolhouse Museum.
On the morning of Sept. 7, 1876, the four gang members left the Cushman hotel and headed east on the Dundas road to rendezvous with their partners along the Cannon River between Dundas and Northfield.
Early that morning Peter Youngquist harnessed his mules and five Millersburg Swedes headed for Northfield on the Dodd Road, preferable for heavy lumber wagons. Nicolaus Gustafson was 30 years old, having arrived in June with his 12-year-old nephew Ernst, grandfather of Delbert Gustafson.
Around 1 p.m., Youngquist tied up his mule-team near Fifth and Division and the Swedes began trading. When the shooting started, Gustafson went outside and was shot in the head. He died four days later and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Northwest corner of Division and East Fifth Street where John Olson encountered Nicolaus Gustafson
The real hero of this story is John Olson, a Swedish carpenter who was working on a cellar door near the corner of Fifth and Division. He was with Gustafson as he fell, cared for him until he died and arranged for his burial.
Olson and his Norwegian wife knew Pastor Thorbjorn Mohn, founder of St. John’s Lutheran Church and first president of St. Olaf College. They asked Mohn to officiate at Gustafson’s interment at the Northfield cemetery. His burial was recorded at St. John’s, causing people to incorrectly assume Gustafson was Norwegian.
Incredibly, neither John Olson nor any member of the Millersburg community were ever questioned by the Faribault prosecutor. It was only in 1897 that Olson was asked for his statement as an eyewitness to the Gustafson shooting, helping keep Jim and Cole Younger in prison until their 1901 parole.
John Olson remained in contact with the Millersburg Swedes and was commissioned to build the Christdala Church. The owner of the mule-team, Peter Youngquist, contributed half the land. Olson finished construction during the summer of 1878 at a cost of $230 — about $5,000 in today’s money. The Gustafson families were prominent life members.
But Nicolaus Gustafson remained forgotten in Northfield until movies and reenactments started using his name to “spice up” the street scenes. Gustafson’s gravesite was finally identified in 1994. Two letters in the Rice County courthouse and a note pinned to his death certificate revealed his name and where he was buried.
A gravestone was erected in the Northfield Cemetery. Each year in September a ceremony honors the murdered bank cashier, Joseph Lee Heywood. Nicolaus Gustafson rests nearby, and his story is told at the old Schoolhouse Museum in Millersburg.