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Bank Robberies and Beer Gardens at Northfield’s ‘Defeat of Jesse James Days’

What, like you've never been to a bank-raid festival before?

A man on horseback raises his fist outside Northfield's First National Bank
Lorie Shaull

Driving to Northfield on Saturday, I get stuck behind two men on horseback in duster jackets, spurs, and cowboy hats. They’re taking up the entire lane.

Twenty minutes later, they’re joined by another group of outlaws. Pedestrians look on as, guns blazing, the gang reenacts the bank raid this just-outside-the-metro college town is known for.

A quick history lesson for those (unlike me) who didn’t grow up thinking an annual bank-raid festival was normal: In 1876, outlaw Jesse James rode into town with his James-Younger Gang. The robbers strolled into the town’s bank and demanded the workers open the vault. The bankers refused. A shootout ensued.

But the townsfolk successfully ran the outlaws out of Northfield. And to this day, townies and outsiders throw an annual party, complete with reenactments, that brings in 200,000 visitors in a good year.

Every year, the weekend after Labor Day is Defeat of Jesse James Days. Duster-clad, spur-clanking men in cowboy hats ride horses up and down the downtown stretch, shooting blanks. The gunshots resonate through the center of town. Nobody startles.

Outside the reenactment zone Saturday, a more classic small-town festival is in full swing. People linger on the steps of the nearby post office, eating gyros and corn dogs and deep-fried cupcake batter from a mix of local and visiting food trucks. One woman complains to me about the lack of funnel cakes this year.

When I arrive around 5 p.m., it’s an all-ages crowd, from older couples to parents trying to keep their toddlers out of the fountain in the center of the square. It’s not just the reenactment actors who dress up—other visitors take the historical theme to heart with 1870s cosplay in outlaw gear, bustle skirts, and bonnets. Many more nod to the Western-ness of it all with flannels and cowboy hats. It’s all outdoors, and almost nobody is masked. A woman rides her bicycle on the sidewalk with a horse head on her handlebars.

One visitor, Stephanie Zimmerman, has come all the way from Tennessee for DJJD. She’s impressed by the reenactment, she tells me, having gotten the rundown on the bank robbery from her husband, John, who grew up Northfield.

“Where I’m from in the south, we have celebrations for anything,” she says. “I’m used to quirky celebrations.”

John grew up marching in the annual DJJD Grand Parade, a multi-hour affair that traditionally rounds out the weekend’s festivities. It didn’t endear the festival to him. But these days, he tells me he’s found more reasons to come back.

“When you have kids, you enjoy it again,” he says. “Because you see it through their eyes. That sounds like it’s a cliché, but it’s true.”

The fire department has taken over the nearby bridge with a bingo tent, where the barker’s voice carries into the food truck zone, urging people to support local first responders with a little gambling.

“You’ll be glad you did!” he calls. “We require only amateurs to play. No professionals allowed.”

This year, the whole affair takes place in the shadow of the ruins of the Archer House hotel. Once the crown jewel of Northfield’s downtown, the historic building suffered a catastrophic fire in November 2020, and the remaining structure collapsed this May. The debris is still there, and I’m not the only former townie walking up to the chain-link fence to gawk at the ruins.

A few blocks away, artisanal vendors mingle with stands selling Young Living MLM essential oils and those “therapeutic” magnetic bracelets. In the past, I’ve seen a Scientology booth, but this year nobody wanted to talk me into giving their e-meter a spin. (Though I did arrive near the end of the craft fair part of the festivities.)

Agnes Kotek, an artist from the neighboring town of New Prague, says the fair is light on vendors this year. She’s still done good business selling hand-woven rugs, though, as she has for the past 18 years at DJJD.

She also sells at New Prague’s annual Dožínky Days, and she’d prefer if DJJD followed that Czech-themed festival in regards to its canine policy: “There’s too many dogs,” she says. “But otherwise, I really like the festival. There’s always a good food selection downtown.”

Not everyone shares the too-many-dogs sentiment. Sisters Mary and Debbie Fiebiger, Northfield residents, let me pet their German Shepherd puppy, Zoe.

By Saturday evening, the sisters had already attended the classic car cruise, the Thursday “Townie Night” carnival, at least one reenactment, and the Raider Derby soapbox car races. (But not the rodeo, they say, since they’re animal lovers.)

DJJD’s full event list also includes live music, a tractor pull, vintage baseball game, cornhole tournament, beard contest, “Outlaw Run” 5K race (sponsored by a local funeral home in 2021), and duck race (a raffle that involves tossing a flock of rubber ducks into the river to pick a lucky winner).

The downtown beer garden will get rowdier as the night goes on and the crowd gets younger and drunker, the Fiebigers tell me. They regale me with the story of the time a guy spilled beer on Debbie, which made a police officer suspicious when both beer-smelling women claimed to be sober during a traffic stop later that night.

Locals either really love DJJD or really want to avoid it, according to the sisters.

“I had a boyfriend once who was such a dud. He was always, ‘I’m leaving during this.’ He was just, ugh. So, good—let him go forever,” Mary says.

I ask if any of it seems strange to them, the idea of this annual celebration of a failed bank robbery.

“It is kind of neat to grow up in a town where there was a bank robbery, where somebody gave their life for the town,” Mary says.