Through many a temptation I led my friends to shame
For the robbing of the Northfield Bank they say I can't deny
And now I am a poor prisoner, in Stillwater Jail I lie
~~The James and Younger Boys
The song goes on to tell the story of the James and Younger gang making its way to "the godforsaken country called Minne-so-teo." The folks back home in Missouri looked upon the gang as modern day Robin Hoods. The Swedes up north hadn't heard about that and fought back. Cole Younger was badly wounded. Frank and Jesse James split up from the others and got away. Jesse later came to a bad end. Frank moved to Arkansas and raised rabbits. A posse caught up with the three Younger brothers and shot them up pretty good without killing them. Next stop, Stillwater Jail or Prison, as it was officially called.
When I moved to Minnesota forty years ago, I wanted to visit the place the Youngers had been imprisoned but figured the old prison would have been long since demolished. Last winter I was in Stillwater and tried to figure out exactly where in town the prison had stood. Indeed the original prison was gone, but the warden's house on Main Street just north of downtown was still standing. It's now the headquarters of the Washington County Historical Society. Unfortunately, the place is closed in winter.
I was in Stillwater just last week and took my two grandsons Sam (11) and Luke (9) on a tour of the warden's house. A sprightly young man told us we were just in time for the next tour. Our guide told us that the two story limestone house was built next to the new state prison in 1853, five years before Minnesota became a state. When the new prison was built in South Stillwater in 1914, the warden took all his furniture with him so everything now in the house came from donations. The museum attempts to chart the history of Washington County, not just the history of the prison
Our guide kept the boys' attention during the 45 minute tour by asking them engaging questions and telling corny jokes. Did you know the pop-up toaster was invented in Stillwater? Yes, in 1921. The original model was right there before us. A heavy-duty appliance intended for restaurant use. "It still works," our guide said. The good thing about having a guide is that you don't have to read all the index cards, plus there are jokes.
We learned about the great timber boom of the nineteenth century. Logs were floated down the river and sawed up in Stillwater's mills. The trees were gone by the turn of the twentieth century and Stillwater lost half her population over the next forty years. It took another 40 years for the town to recover.
The highlight of the tour was the room devoted to the prison. There weren't many prisoners in the early days, but newspaper reports of the day complain about prisoners being able to escape at will. There were always factories in the prison, the warden getting a share of the profits from prison labor. A later warden allowed prisoners' wives to spend the night. There was also a restaurant and a friendly prostitute in residence. This warden lasted less than a year.
The Younger brothers Cole, Bob, and Jim arrived in Stillwater after their trial in 1876. They had been sentenced to life imprisonment. One wall in the "prison room" has two large photographs of the Youngers. In the first, taken just after their capture, they look terrible, perforated as they were by bullets. In the other picture taken a few years later, they're wearing suits and look like leading citizens. Bob was close to death from tuberculosis and the warden has allowed the brothers to go uptown to have their portrait made.
Cole and Bob were paroled in 1901. Bob killed himself a year later. Cole was given a pardon on condition that he leave Minnesota and that he not make a profit from his notoriety. Well it was just too tempting. He was a celebrity after all, and went on to have a successful career as an author, lecturer, and performer in a Wild West Show. However, he did manage to stay away from Minne-so-teo.
Sam and Luke in front of the Warden's House.