Local lore has Jesse James and his gang staying in this cave near Spring Grove on theirway to Northfield, Minn., where they robbed a bank on Sept. 7, 1876.  CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
Local lore has Jesse James and his gang staying in this cave near Spring Grove on their

way to Northfield, Minn., where they robbed a bank on Sept. 7, 1876. CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
When it comes to separating fact from folklore, things can get messy.

Here are some facts: Just south of Spring Grove, Jesse James Road dips south towards the Iowa border. If one follows the little gravel byway south over the bluff and down into the last valley in Minnesota, one may spot a cave in the rock face to the left, especially now, before the trees leaf out.

That's where the road's name came from. Legend holds that the James-Younger gang camped in the cave prior to heading for Northfield, Minn., where a bank robbery went terribly wrong on Sept. 7, 1876, resulting in the killing of several townspeople and outlaws.

More facts. Back in 1876, the West was still pretty wild. Minnesotans were dismayed when they got word that a famous general and hundreds of troopers had been killed on June 25 near a stream that the Sioux and Cheyenne called "Greasy Grass." Whites referred to it as the Little Bighorn. According to historians, the country was still smarting from the panic of 1873, a financial crisis that triggered a depression in North America and Europe. To top it off, sections of Minnesota were also plagued by "great swarms" of grasshoppers that summer.

Other caves in Houston, Fillmore and adjacent counties in Iowa are all reputed to have served as hideouts for the same James-Younger gang. If the stories are true, Frank and Jesse James, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, and several other gang members were a remarkable bunch of troglodytes.

At least one historian does claim that the gang, wishing to avoid detection, met up at Monagaw Cave in Missouri while they planned their trip to Minnesota.

Historians also say there's a problem with most of the cave stories. Apparently, the gang was well-heeled after robbing a train in Missouri two months prior to the Northfield holdup. Ironically, they are believed to have ridden a train to the Twin Cities, passing through Mankato. Once there, gang members began checking into upscale hotels on or about Aug. 23. They gambled and generally led the high life, touring surrounding communities with thick bankrolls in their pockets, buying horses and snooping out a choice, unsuspecting bank to make a "withdrawal" from.

Another Houston County site allegedly associated with the gang is a roadhouse and stagecoach stop at the bottom of Schauble Hill. The stone structure still stands and the James brothers reportedly stayed there overnight on the way back from Northfield. However, historians believe the outlaws all fled to the southwest after the holdup, putting them farther, not closer, to the southeastern corner of the state. The Youngers were finally caught near the Wantowan River, not far from Madelia, Minn. Jesse and Frank are said to have escaped the cordon, and were later spotted near Sioux City, headed south.

Finally, a story from Eitzen. Conrad Laufer ran a hotel there in 1876 and the James boys were said to have spent the night at his establishment prior to riding off to Northfield. They were packing plenty of weapons, Laufer supposedly stated. The hotel register also supposedly held their names. That's something that would also be remarkable, since the pair were wanted for train robbery, and a hefty reward was offered for their capture.

"As far as I'm concerned, they never set foot in Houston County," local historian and genealogist Georgia Rosendahl said. "My great-grandparents lived up the valley from that cave and my dad was a great storyteller. If anything like that would have happened, I'm sure I would have heard about it."

Rosendahl and Thomas Carlson help out at the Houston County Historic Society in Caledonia, and Giants of the Earth Heritage Center in Spring Grove.

When asked about the interface between fact and folklore, Carlson said that Voltaire once observed: "History is a set of tricks we play upon the dead."

"If a story gets told enough times, it develops enough 'truthiness' that it crosses the threshold, doesn't it?" he asked.

Folklore often starts with a grain of truth, Carlson noted, but it's not always easy to locate.

Some stories began as inside jokes, but became lost in translation. Carlson remembered a tale about an Iowa mill owner supposedly named Pulver who got caught in the millstones and was "pulverized."

There was also a steamboat which got an "anvil welcome" when it sailed beneath a toll bridge. Some thought folks were making a racket to welcome the arrival of the ship, pounding on pots, pans and anvils. Others thought the boat, which was belching sparks that could have started a fire, had an anvil dropped on it from the very-flammable bridge.

If a story appears in print, is it true?

Carlson recalled the tale of a skeleton found encased in a hollow tree trunk, somewhere in northeast Iowa. Versions of this story said it was an Indian maiden who angered her family by "marrying badly" and was walled up in the tree. Another version claimed the body was identified by some belongings found with it and the unfortunate person was actually a long lost member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, hundreds of miles from the route that the party followed west.

Did the tales all grow from a "seed" of fact? Carlson noted he later found a news story that referred to the grisly discovery of a skeleton in a tree trunk.

"The worst part is, that some people want to mark territory as a story comes through. They'll add their own little twist to it, just to say it's their story... But I do believe most of these stories begin with some sort of truth," he admitted. "It's a little like the old parlor game, Telephone. You start with a story, which one person whispers to the next. By the time you get all the way around the room, it's totally different."

Whether it's bank robbers, Indian maidens, lost explorers or falling anvils, folklore adds color to a region's history, regardless of the details.