My pet “GTFO the Twin Cities” this spring has been the drive down Highway 52 to Northfield. I set the cruise control, queue up my Lana Del Rey tracks, and set southward with nothing on my mind whatsoever. The roads are mostly quiet if you go this way, and you could make a rack’s worth of postcards with the scenery. The blue shades of a clear sky, and the greens of thick trees and lush farmland, are almost cartoonishly perfect at times.
From home, I can be to Northfield in about 40 minutes. Does that sound like a lot? Well, if you’re like me, 40 minutes of clear highway is merely a profanity-free version of your morning commute.
As of the 2010 census, Northfield’s population is exactly 20,000 … and 7. The presence of Carleton College and St. Olaf make Northfield technically a college town. The Cannon River cuts the city limits almost exactly in half. Despite these factors, the corporate forces that are usually so quick to big-box up a small town’s charm don’t seem to have been let in here. You can still see people fishing off bridges, and have a bench to yourself overlooking the water.
Division Street is the heart of the action. You can drink coffee in cutesy small shops, browse a red brick mini-mall with a rickety white patio, and be anywhere in the business district with a light walk. There’s a VFW on Division St. with pull tabs and light beer; and a pretty good brisket sandwich, if you get to Smoqe House before they close at 7 p.m. Your only parking stress will be deciding which business you want to be right in front of.
And every so often, just outside Bridge Square, you’ll hear someone yell “Get your guns, boys! They’re robbing the bank!”
THE TOWN THAT STOOD TALL. Northfield’s motto is “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment” but it’s known first as the town that fought off Jesse James’ infamous James-Younger Gang. For five dollars, the folks at the Northfield Historical Society will tell you about it. They’ll take this tranquil, clean street and paint over it with gunsmoke and mayhem. They’ll explain the gang’s strategy, point out where A.R. Manning and Henry Wheeler shot gang members down, and take you step-by-step through the ensuing manhunt (the largest in U.S. history at the time) after the gang turned tail with only $26.70.
Then, they’ll take you into the old First National Bank itself. The space was purchased by the Historical Society in 1975 and restored back to its 1876 appearance. You’ll see some original artifacts, including a blood-stained ledger and the original vault. You’ll hear the story of Joseph Lee Heywood, the cashier who gave his life defending the vault.
Northfield celebrates Defeat of Jesse James Days every year, complete with a re-enactment of the raid, a memorial service for Heywood, a rodeo, and a list of other events you could tire yourself trying to read in one sitting.
Right across the street from the Historical Society is Hogan Brothers Acoustic Cafe. A co-worker tells me it’s the only thing Carleton College and St. Olaf students can agree on. I walked in and the first things I noticed were dueling tip jars labeled by school. My co-worker said agreement, not unity.
On Hogan Brothers’ front window, a soup and sandwich deal is advertised and I swear it isn’t a typo. It’s true: one of Minnesota’s best soup and sandwich combos can be had for as little as $5.59. Take every topping. Spend 50 cents and get extra meat. take it up with your firmest grip and try dunking it in your soup. You’ll lose half your lettuce but the bites are most satisfying.
I’ve never met a beer cheese soup I didn’t like. That said, the beer cheese soup at Hogan Brothers: phenomenal.
Just as the lunch prices and old-timey curved wooden booths call back to an era that predates the shop itself (Hogan Bros. opened in 1991), you cap this experience with ice cream for the old school: two good-sized scoops plopped precariously onto a miniature sugar cone. I get the Mackinac Island Fudge. It’s got chocolate chunks big enough to be their own bites, the mud-run streaks of butter fudge, and a sugary base that’ll be just as tasty when you lick your fingers clean of it as it was when you started.
Two dollar for this, by the way.
Between 5th and 6th Street on Division is where Northfield held this year’s Earth Day celebration. It wasn’t a huge thing, but big enough for a block of street to be cordoned off and for Tesla representatives to bring fully-electrics cars fir display. Music played on the street, people lined up at food truck windows, and hopscotch boards were drawn all over the pavement.
Music seems to play a lot in this town. On an especially winsome Saturday night, I heard one band covering Johnny Cash inside Imminent Brewing on Division and 6th; four blocks up, a band played lively music outside the Contented Cow while bar-goers basked in patio light. The Contented Cow stage is no architectural marvel, but that sucker glows at night.
I love the Contented Cow. Give me a dusky basement watering hole with free darts anyday. Give me cow-print booth tables, a single big-screen TV, and a creepy devil goat painted onto the door inside the bathroom. They don’t screw with plastic-tipped darts here. Their darts are metal-tipped, with light bodies and disarranged feathers. Their flight patterns often resemble that of a wounded bird. I swear, I sometimes throw those darts and the tips point toward the floor during flight. They always find the board though (but not always).
You probably forgot how gorgeous Boddington’s Pub Ale when that beer is first poured, and how well it keeps its beauty until the last sips. The Contented Cow is a good place to remind yourself. They don’t have much food, but you can get a slice of pot pie stuffed with spinach, potatoes, and cheese. They sell flatbreads and salads, too, but you’re mostly tipping jars back and chucking darts here.
This first piece covered a lot in a short span, but you might yourself covering a lot in a short span during your trips to Northfield. In my case, what you read here was barely the tip of the iceberg. I’ve met so many people, heard so many stories, eaten and drank so much at so many places, and have a lot of work left to do in the area.
This won’t be an uninterrupted series, the way my Riverside Bookshops trip and my December Celebration Series were, but the constancy should at least indicate just how much time you can kill on the Cannon River … and some key stops along the way.
Don’t let Google Maps frighten you. Instead, take your side mirrors’ message to heart and put your car into gear.