Book by 8th graders follows James gang through Minnesota

Student writers
Students Caitlin Ruppel (L to R), Devyn Gardner, Beret Amundson, and teacher Earl Weinmann stand in front of the bank (now a museum) in Northfield that was robbed by the James and Younger gang on Sept. 7, 1876. More than two dozen eighth-graders over four years helped write "Caught in the Storm," a travel guide that follows the 100 miles the gang traveled between the robbery and capture.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Northfield will forever be tied to the story of outlaw Jesse James. On September 7, 1876, James' gang tried to rob a bank there and failed. Much of the gang was captured two weeks later about 100 miles away.

But for all that's written about James, one historian in Northfield noticed there wasn't much written on that two-week span between the robbery and the capture.

So, he had his eighth-grade students at Northfield Middle School write a book.

For Caitlin Ruppel, Devyn Gardner, and Beret Amundson the story is all too familiar. The three teens, along with 20 or so others, are co-authors of "Caught in the Storm" - a book they all took part in during their 8th grade year.

The young ladies are now 18, 14, and 17, respectively.

"It's an awesome feeling and looks good on college applications," Ruppel said.

Each year for four years, one group of 8th-graders handed off their work to the next group until the final product was published last fall.

Scene of the crime
Teacher Earl Weinmann (right) reviews with student Beret Amundson a detail about the famed bank robbery of the First National Bank in Northfield, Minn., on Sept. 7, 1876. The two are standing in the original building, behind the teller's desk where the robbery took place.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Their teacher, Earl Weinmann, said one goal was to teach good researching skills so the book would separate fact from fiction and offer the most logical account of what happened during those two weeks.

"Generally, what you'll read in most books about the James and Younger gang is a raid that was pretty dramatic here in Northfield," Weinmann said. "And you'll read about maybe one or two events along the way, and ultimately the capture at Hanska Slough.

"But there's a lot more that happened between then, and nobody had compiled them together until these students."

Plaque in the original First National Bank
A plaque in the original First National Bank in Northfield honors Joseph Lee Heywood, the clerk who was killed by the James and Younger gang during their failed robbery on Sept. 7, 1876.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The result is more a field guide than book. It's ringed, not bound, so readers can fold over pages and write notes. The only professional help the students received was in the layout.

The story starts in Northfield, where the original First National Bank building still stands; it's now a museum.

There were six people in the bank during the robbery (three robbers, three employees), and the space is small, so it's easy to imagine how crowded and chaotic it became, which likely helped make the job a bust. The gang got away with just $26.70 that day, even though the safe was full.

"When I was a tour guide, we came in here and gave practice tours," said Devyn Gardner. "The first time you come in here and step on these floor boards - these, I think, are the original floor boards - you're like 'I could be standing where any one of the six people in the bank were standing.' I think that's a really cool feeling."

Original First National Bank
The original First National Bank in Northfield is now part of a museum that marks the failed robbery on Sept. 7, 1876 by the James and Younger gang.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

There might not have been a Northfield Middle School for these students to attend and write the book, if the robbers had realized one key detail that day. The bank's safe contained $15,000 - an amount that Weinmann said would have left the town bankrupt if it had been stolen. What the robbers didn't know was the safe was unlocked during the entire heist.

The robbery is re-created every year during Defeat of Jesse James Days, a September tradition for Northfield, held the weekend after Labor Day.

Click here to see a video of the robbery reenactment.

After Northfield, the outlaws - some badly injured - slogged their way through two weeks of rain and mud, passing through a dozen or so towns, all the while being chased by the largest posse in U.S. history.

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The book includes GPS info and maps, so readers can go to each place along the journey.

For example, the bridge where the gang crossed the Blue Earth River at Mankato is long gone, except for some stones from the foundation. The book takes you right to those stones.

Teacher Earl Weinmann, who has been part of those re-enactments before, said the book makes an important distinction from other Jesse James stories: This one doesn't glorify the outlaws.

"We glorify the fact that these individuals in town, otherwise ordinary characters, stood up to a gang that nobody has stood up against for 10 years," he said.

Joseph Lee Heywood was shot and killed in the bank that day after repeatedly thwarting robbers' attempts to get into the safe. Jeff Dunning stumbled upon the gang near Marysburg, and was briefly kidnapped before being released. Oscar Sorbel alerted the sheriff after spotting the gang near Hanska, a crucial step in the gang's capture.

Jesse James
Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 -- April 3, 1882) was an American outlaw from the state of Missouri and the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang.
Public domain photo from Wikipedia

The James brothers, Jesse and Frank, had split off and escaped, but the rest of the six were either killed or captured. Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, the other members of the gang, all served time in a prison in Stillwater.

Still, Northfield marked the end of Jesse James' heyday; a fact not lost on Caitlin Ruppel.

"I think that more people should know that, and it's an important part of history - especially Minnesota history," Ruppel said, who was in the first group of student authors five years ago. "And, it was just nice to be able to have a part in that."

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