This month the Northfield Historical Society added to its collection via long term loan one of the most important known artifacts from the 1876 robbery attempt by the James-Younger Gang: the rifle that Henry Wheeler used to defend the First National Bank of Northfield. The weapon — a .50 caliber Smith carbine — is on loan from its anonymous new owner and will be on display in the museum in the coming months.
“We have so many artifacts from the James-Younger Gang members, but little that represents the town’s defense of the failed 1876 raid,” says Hayes Scriven, NHS executive director. “Our being able to display this rifle with its rich backstory is remarkable.”
“As a young college student Henry Wheeler put his life on the line to help prevent a bank robbery that would have devastated Northfield residents,” adds the owner. “I’m glad to be able to help keep his legacy alive.”
NHS first learned about the Wheeler collection in 2012 when Dr. James Bailey, a forensic scientist who conducted a study of the skeleton in the NHS collection, was researching the Smith carbine and Henry Wheeler. Earlier this year Scriven made an unsuccessful bid to get a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society that would allow NHS to purchase the rifle. Scriven then reached out to a mutual friend of the new owner and “the rest is history,” quips Scriven.
The current owner purchased the weapon with the intention of letting NHS put it on long-term display. NHS is currently evaluating its exhibit on the failed 1876 raid. “It’s a quality exhibit, but we could make better use of our space,” says Scriven. “In addition, new raid facts and artifacts have emerged over the past few years, and we want to better highlight local responses to the failed raid — something the current exhibit does not do well.”
The Wheeler collection will be the “crown jewel” in the new exhibit that should open sometime next summer. Along with the rifle, visitors will see the Smith and Wesson .38 caliber revolver that Wheeler carried after the family of Clell Miller threatened his life because Wheeler had shot and killed Miller during the raid. A gold pocket watch the First National Bank presented to Wheeler for his efforts in defending the bank also is on display, along with a recently discovered photo of Wheeler during his time as a student at Carleton College.