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Alumnus donates James-Younger Gang images to Northfield

By Nancy J. Ashmore
May 30, 2007

The glass negative of gang member Clel Miller, who was killed during the raid by the James-Younger Gang of the Northfield National Bank on Sept. 7, 1876.
"This is where they belong," says Benjamin Nystuen '57.

On May 24 Nystuen donated 12 priceless glass plate negatives to the Northfield Historical Society (6:30 p.m. at the NHS office in downtown Northfield). The Colorado Springs, Colo., retiree was back in his hometown to attend his 50th reunion at St. Olaf.

The 131-year-old negatives contain images of members of the infamous James-Younger gang, taken after they tried to rob the Northfield National Bank in 1876. They show William Stiles and Clel Miller, killed in the raid; Charlie Pitts, killed in a shoot-out later in Madelia, Minn.; and Bob, Jim, and Cole Younger, wounded and captured in the same gun battle.

Nobody knows how much the donation would be worth at auction. The negatives are priceless to a town that celebrates "The Defeat of Jesse James Days" every September. Postcards of the dead and captured robbers are among the most popular (and most discussed) items in the museum's store.

Benjamin Nystuen '57 with his wife, Maureen.
Nystuen received the negatives in 1985 from his father, Elmer Nystuen, who operated the Phillips 66 gas station in Northfield between 1928 and 1948. Elmer got them from Stuart Sumner. He was the son of Ira Sumner, the man who photographed the outlaws. Nystuen says that Stuart Sumner gave the negatives to his father, a friend, to repay a debt or for safekeeping.

Nystuen recalls that during World War II a picture frame in the men's restroom of his father's gas station included the images that he's donating. It also held photos of the bank and town, plus an image of Joseph Lee Heywood, the bookkeeper and acting cashier who was killed during the raid. "My mother wouldn't have this gruesome collection in our home," he says.

Nystuen's donation is very exciting, says Hayes Scriven, the society's director. "I hoped these negatives were out there somewhere, but I never imagined I'd see them. We're eager to make them available to visitors -- by displaying them in a light box, perhaps. We've contacted the Minnesota Historical Society for recommendations on the proper lighting to use and hope to have something ready in September."

After majoring in physics at St. Olaf, Nystuen was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant through the AFROTC program. He spent 28 years in the Air Force, mostly flying fighters (including 193 combat sorties in Vietnam), and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He later earned a B.S. and M.S. from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he taught computer science for 10 years.

Nystuen and his wife, Maureen, have a son, Erik, and a daughter, Dagny -- a member of the St. Olaf Class of 1988.

See the story about the negatives that was aired by local NBC affiliate KARE 11.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or