Northfield, Minn.: leafy campuses and a Jesse James festival

Of all the fairs and festivals that flavor the American summer, Northfield's must be the only one that celebrates a foiled bank holdup. For four days in September (the weekend after Labor Day) this pretty town on the Cannon River, 40 miles south of the Twin Cities, stages the Defeat of Jesse James Days, recalling the 1876 Waterloo of the James and Younger gangs.

Labor Day and indeed summer itself were still far away when I happened - and happened is the word for it - onto Northfield one afternoon, curious to see if the town I knew from visits long ago still had Jesse James emblazoned on the name of every other cafe and barbershop.

It was on April 18, Patriots' Day in New England, where respects were being paid to a more conventional American hero, Paul Revere, that an old friend and I set off by car from Minneapolis to hunt up some local color. At first I had my sights set on the five-year-old Minnesota Zoological Garden, one of the country's newer and more novel zoos, and a perfect day's outing from the Twin Cities.

We were hoping to have lunch at the zoo, but when the young woman at the gate said our only choice was the in-house Dairy Queen, we repaired to a restaurant named Durning's, a few miles away at Cliff Road and the Cedar Avenue Freeway. It was in this spotless, modern roadhouse with its old-fashioned display of Minnesota farm and kitchen implements that we began to hanker for a taste of small-town life. Mapless, I asked a waitress swabbing down a table if she could recommend a town or two in the region.

''Well, there's Farmington,'' she said, erupting in laughter, evidently tickled by a private joke, ''but on the same road, Highway 3, you come to Northfield, which is real nice.''

Northfield it was. I hadn't been there in years but remembered the brick facades on the main street, the leafy campuses of both Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges, and of course the Jesse James connection. ''Didn't Northfield used to call itself the Town of Cows, Colleges, and Contentment?'' my friend offered. Indeed it had, but as we approached through rolling farmland still caked with an April snowfall, a sign said: ''Welcome to Northfield: A Special Place.''

We crossed a little bridge over the rushing Cannon River, parked near Bridge Square, and began to walk Division Street, the main drag. Up one side and down the other we failed to find a single Jesse James reference. We passed the Ideal Cafe (better known to college students, I was to learn, as the Ordeal), the Quality Bakery, and a number of other brick and limestone buildings ca. 1870 to 1910 that are part of a sizable Northfield Historic District. Finally, in the lobby of the 1877 Hotel Stuart (30 rooms, at $18 per single, $20 double), I asked after Jesse James.

We were directed up the block to the Scriver Building, home of the Chamber of Commerce, the Northfield Historical Society, and the very building that held the bank that the James and Younger boys couldn't crack. On the ground floor is a small museum dedicated to that seven-minute slice of Minnesota history. Along with the original vault and safe and ledgers and other displays is a videotape depiction of the Sept. 7, 1876, raid. What you see on the screen is the same shoot-out that is staged over and over for visitors during the September festival - the raiders in their long dusters fighting it out with the good folk of the prairie farm town.

''It's the third-largest festival in Minnesota,'' the schoolgirl guide recited proudly, also naming the Minneapolis Summer Aquatennial and the St. Paul Winter Carnival. ''We have a parade, an arts fair, races, a drum and bugle corps competition. . . .''

What had become of the Jesse James Cafe, I asked her boss, the museum director. ''Oh, it was closed about 10 years ago,'' she said. ''There was a Jesse James barbershop and a Jesse James real estate office, and they moved out or were closed, too.''

Now the schoolgirl was reeling off notable Northfield institutions. ''That big mill on the river? All the Malt-O-Meal cereal in the world comes from there, and the Sheldahl Company makes some kind of spaceship parts.''

Since Northfield is a college town, somewhere in my storehouse of Minnesota memorabilia I remembered that Carleton and St. Olaf play each other for an age-old football trophy each fall. We strolled the Carleton campus, too early for the Arboretum - or ''Arb,'' as the students call it - to be abloom with lilacs, a glade so inviting that some sleep out in it overnight.

There was nothing too fetching about the school library, which was undergoing a big addition, but we were happy to stumble into the Sayles-Hill Center, an ancient basketball gym converted a few years ago to a most appealing student center with Scandinavian blond furniture and plant-hung study areas cleverly plotted on several levels of the old barn of a building.

St. Olaf, best known for its world-touring choir, lies across town at the end of a rising, elm-lined avenue of stalwart frame houses. We drove about the piney campus, past its limestone-gray buildings and a red Victorian residence hall. And then we were on the road back to Minneapolis, wondering what adventure a day at the zoo would have brought.

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