This charming city straddling the Cannon River exudes a European charm. John North, a progressive-thinking lawyer from New York, founded The City of Cows, Colleges and Contentment in 1855.
He constructed the Ames Mill (today the home of Malt-O-Meal) the next year, and the flour it produced, using a new and improved milling process, won an award at the 1876 Centennial Exposition World’s Fair in Philadelphia.
Milling declined toward the end of the 19th century, and many locals turned to dairy cows—area farmers were amongst the first in the nation to raise Holsteins for their livelihood—and by the early 1900s Northfield was one of America’s leading dairy centers.
Agriculture remains the area’s top industry, though Northfield’s fortunes rest squarely on its two high-ranking colleges. Tops is Carleton College, known as the “Harvard of the Midwest” for attracting more National Merit Scholars than any other liberal arts college in the country. St. Olaf College, well known for its music program, holds tightly to its Norwegian roots and is the home of the national archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Society.
Together the pair, founded in 1866 and 1874 respectively, have nearly 5,000 students, and while it’s impossible to know what would have come of Northfield had the schools not thrived, it certainly wouldn’t be the vibrant place it is today.
Northfield is most famous for a violent bank robbery. On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang, led by the infamous Jesse and Frank James, rode into town and raided the First National Bank , but the robbery was foiled by the courageous townsfolk. Joseph Heywood, the acting cashier, refused to assist, even though the safe was unlocked (none of the outlaws tried to open it on their own and they only got away with $26.60, all in coins), a brave act of resistance for which he was fatally shot.
Alerted men took up the fight on the streets, killing two of the eight outlaws. The remaining six, including the James brothers, were pursued across the state by a posse that grew as large as 1,000, and eventually each gang member was captured or killed. Hollywood has rehashed the affair many times, but never once bothered to do so accurately.
Though the robbers later told conflicting stories about the heist, Cole Younger asserted that they ventured all the way up to Minnesota from Missouri because the bank held funds of two carpetbaggers they despised (Adelbert Ames, who ran the mill, had been a Northern general and was later appointed governor of Mississippi by President Grant, and General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts), thus some observers consider it the last battle of the Civil War.
The Defeat of Jesse James Days , one of Minnesota’s biggest festivals, takes place the weekend after Labor Day.
If you aren’t driving, the easiest way to get here from the Twin Cities  is with Care Tenders (507/664-3859 or 888/492-7433), who will pick you up at the airport and deliver you right to your destination in town. Jefferson Lines (888/864-2832, www.jeffersonlines.com ) buses stop at the Big Steer Travel Center (8051 Bagley Ave.) west of town at the junction of I-35 and Highway 19. With 24 hours’ notice Northfield Transit (507/645-7250, $4) will pick you up or drop you off at Big Steer.