Since very early in its history, Northfield has been a center of higher education. Carleton College (then Northfield College) was founded in 1866 on the northern edge of town by New England Congregationalists, who also established Harvard University more than 200 years earlier. St. Olaf College was founded in 1874 on the western edge of town by Norwegian Lutheran immigrant pastors and farmers eager to preserve their faith and culture by training teachers and preachers. These two institutions, which today enroll a total of more than 5,000 students, have a major influence on the makeup of Northfield.
In the 1970s the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area expanded south of the Minnesota River with the completion of Interstate Highway 35 (6 miles west of Northfield via Minnesota Highway 19), allowing traffic across the Minnesota River. Northfield is now growing and urbanizing. The downtown grain elevator accepted its last load of corn in 2000 and was torn down in 2002. Residential growth has been rapid since the mid-1990s. Northfield is becoming a suburb and bedroom community on the southern fringe of the metropolitan area. A new hospital, which opened in 2003 in the northwest corner of town, is actually in Dakota County.
Many of the buildings in downtown Northfield are reasonably well-preserved examples of late 19th/early 20th century architecture. Because of early economic successes and the stability of two thriving colleges, the downtown is more extensive and better maintained than otherwise similar Midwest communities. Today, commercial development continues on the southern edge of the city, where room for growth remains.
Roughly speaking, the town is centered around the Cannon River and rises both to the east and the west away from this bisecting river body.
There were 4,909 households out of which 35.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 52.7% were married couples living together, 9.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 34.6% were non-families. 27.5% of all households were made up of individuals and 9.6% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.53 and the average family size was 3.08.
In the city the population was spread out with 20.2% under the age of 18, 32.1% from 18 to 24, 21.0% from 25 to 44, 16.1% from 45 to 64, and 10.5% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 23 years. For every 100 females there were 91.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 87.7 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $49,972, and the median income for a family was $61,055. Males had a median income of $40,008 versus $28,456 for females. The per capita income for the city was $18,619. About 2.8% of families and 7.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 5.3% of those under age 18 and 7.4% of those age 65 or over.
Early in its history the merchants agreed to create a small downtown square, between Fourth Street (north), Division Street (east), the Cannon River (west) and the southern storefronts. The old Ames Mill/Malt-O-Meal plant was also nearby, originally powered by the dam on the river. Bridge Square and the surrounding downtown area remains a large cultural attraction for the city. The square has several attractions, including a large fountain, a memorial statue and a concession stand run by the senior center known as "the popcorn wagon", as it is housed in an old-fashioned wagon. Additionally there are several nearby scenic walkways along the river and numerous shops and boutiques that can be found along the neighboring streets.
There has been a recent expansion of businesses serving the growing senior citizen market, including the Village on the Cannon, Millstream Commons, as well as new construction at the Northfield Retirement Center complex. The northern edge of the city has also been expanding, with several residential and commercial developments.
The foiled attempt by the outlaw Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang to rob the First National Bank of Northfield serves as a tourist draw for the town. The original bank building, which still exists, has been converted to a museum operated by the Northfield Historical Society A skeleton supposedly of a gang member was displayed in the museum for many years and is still in storage there. The First National Bank of Northfield is still in operation, although the main office is now a half a block away from the original site. In its front lobby, a glass case showcases a gun used during the attempted robbery. The Northfield Convention and Visitors Bureau provides comprehensive tourism information and visit planning services.
On September 7, 1876, Northfield experienced one of its most important historical events. An outlaw gang led by Jesse James tried to rob the First National Bank of Northfield. Local citizens, recognizing what was happening, armed themselves and resisted the robbers, successfully thwarting the theft, but not before the bank's cashier, Joseph Lee Heywood (who also served as Northfield's and Carleton College's treasurer) and a Swedish immigrant, Nicolaus Gustavson, were murdered. A couple of the James-Younger gang were killed in the street, while the rest of the Gang (except for Jesse and Frank James, who reportedly escaped), were cornered near Madelia, Minnesota, and were either killed or taken into custody. The failed raid has sometimes been called the last major event of the American Civil War. The event has become a major tourist draw for the city.
One result of the attempted bank robbery by the James-Younger gang is an outdoor festival, The Defeat of Jesse James Days, held the weekend after Labor Day every year to commemorate the event. The festival is among the largest outdoor celebrations in Minnesota. Thousands of visitors witness reenactments of the robbery, watch championship rodeo, enjoy a carnival, watch the parade, explore arts and crafts expositions, and attend musical performances.
A number of films have been made of the attempted robbery. One of the best known is the 1972 film The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, which portrayed the bedraggled James brothers riding off into the mountains west of town. In reality the mountains are about west of town. As a result of this historic event, one of Northfield's slogans is "Jesse James Slipped here." by virtue that he escaped, and that the heist was such a failure.
The Carleton College Cowling Arboretum is a sizable, well-established arboretum and nature preserve adjacent to Carleton College that offers extensive trails for walking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter.
Northfield is served by Minnesota State Senator Kevin Dahle in District 25 and State Representative David Bly in District 25B.