Most of you aren’t old enough or you haven’t lived here that long, but I can remember the very first Jesse James Day (“Defeat of” was added later) 61 years ago.
What’s more, I was already writing for the Northfield News. There was just one re-enactment that year. It was held close to the right place. There were still stores with plate glass show windows on the Division Street side of the Scriver Building so the reenactment was held at the corner of the building where the Historical Society’s gift shop is now located. That was the only part of the building’s main floor that hadn’t been radically changed at a time when the building was being “modernized.” That part would have been changed too if many Northfielders had not pleaded with the building owner to leave the corner intact.During the next few Jesse James Days, the reenactment was moved to the right place in the building with a sign reading “Bank” fastened to the store’s awning. Even after the Historical Society owned the building, most of the Division Street side of the building was not returned to its original look. I happened to be walking along Division when a car crashed into the side of the Scriver Building. A woman who was just learning to drive took off from her diagonal parking place at high speed and caused quite a bit of damage to her boyfriend’s car and the building. I was shocked and didn’t right then realize that the insurance money would make it possible for the society to turn yet another portion of the building to its original look.Well, to get back to 1948, Division Street was much more highly decorated than it is today. There was bunting on all the lamp posts and over the street. Almost every store window had a collection of antiques in it, either pertaining to the business or just miscellaneous things. Northfielders came down town to look it all over.
Jesse James Day was in the middle of the Fall Festival. The first day of the celebration, a tall, good looking man carrying a suitcase came striding into the News office. For some reason I got up to wait on him and he asked me why the town was all gussied up. “Jesse James Day,” I said. Klunk, he dropped the heavy suitcase on the floor. “Well, what do you know about that,” he said. “Here I’ve been chasing the Jesse James story around the country for the past month and here I walk right into his big day.”
Minutes later he was in the room where the bound files of the newspaper were kept, digging out facts for the book he was about to write.He was Homer Croy, who wrote books and scripts for movies, best known for movies starring Will Rogers or Claudette Colbert, who you are likely too young to remember. But because his home was in Missouri, not far from where Jesse James had lived, he enjoyed telling tales about Jesse to entertain anyone with whom he might be visiting.So one day when he was lunching with representatives of his book publishers, Duell, Sloan and Pierce of New York City, he told some of the anecdotes. Lo and behold, the next day he had a telephone call from the publishing house asking him to write a book about Jesse James.He didn’t really want the assignment, but they talked him into it. And he traveled around to visit with people who’d had some kind of experience with Jesse. He was the first person that I know of to ever visit Northfield to find out the facts about our bank raid. We were constantly irked by mistakes in books, articles, movies and television shows that referred to the 1876 bank raid.The next year after he was here, Croy’s book, “Jesse James Was My Neighbor,” was published.I ought to mention that when I was a kid here in Northfield, I had never heard of the bank raid. When I reached high school and classes taught by Vincent Hunt, I heard about it and Hunt expressed his disgust with the town for not celebrating the event. He pointed out that Northfield was the first town that had fought the gang, in fact had caused its downfall. He noted that many residents of our town wanted no part in such a celebration. They wanted Northfield to be known only for music and fine arts.As I think about it now, it was the Junior Chamber of Commerce that got up that 1948 celebration and those of several subsequent years. Many of the Jaycees were about my age and would likely have sat in Hunt’s classes. So maybe we have him to thank for our very successful Defeat of Jesse James Days!— Reach Maggie Lee at 645-1119.