Devil’s Gulch

Farm Forum

The caller ID displayed an Iowa area code. I answered the phone and the caller asked me if I was me. This can be a tricky question. You never know who might be trying to peddle what manner of snake oil.

I cautiously replied that I was, indeed, me. “Good!” boomed the voice in the earpiece. “I’ve been looking for you for three years!”

This was intriguing enough to keep me on the line.

The caller was Bruce Osborn of Cylinder, Iowa. He explained that he was making a documentary about Jesse James and was wondering if I would be part of it.

I promptly told Bruce that he had the wrong number. While I had certainly heard of the infamous outlaw, I am nowhere near an expert. As with most topics, my knowledge regarding Jesse James is a mile wide and a molecule deep.

Bruce said that he had an old column of mine regarding Jesse James. I can’t recollect what happened this morning, so remembering what I wrote years ago was out of the question. Thank goodness my computer has a better memory than me!

Once my computer recalled it, I recalled that that epistle was a rumination on the James brothers’ flight across Minnesota after their botched bank heist in Northfield. Perhaps the world’s most renowned escape took place when Jesse jumped his horse across Devil’s Gulch at what is now Garretson, South Dakota.

I again insisted that I’m no expert, but Bruce insisted to the contrary. We ended our talk amicably, even though I still thought it might be a prank. But a few days later the mail brought a package from Movie Productions, LLC, the company Bruce mentioned. The packet contained a DVD and other materials that proved that these folks are serious about their James Gang documentary.

I recently journeyed to Garretson to meet Mr. Osborn. Bruce is a very nice fellow, gregarious and outgoing. We went to Devil’s Gulch Park and met with some dedicated volunteers from the Garretson Area Historical Society.

Bruce unfolded a map of southern Minnesota that marked the places where Frank and Jesse stayed during their grueling getaway.

“They would have followed this old stagecoach road,” he said, dragging his finger across the map. It’s easy to forget that there were very few real roads out here in 1876, that this region was mostly wide-open prairie.

I asked Bruce what had sparked his interest in the James Gang.

“I was a cattle buyer and was driving to an auction when I happened to see a sign near La Salle that said ‘Site of capture of the Younger brothers.’ I stopped to take a look and it hit me that history actually happened right here. I was hooked. I’ve been chasing Jesse James for the past ten years!”

There are those who don’t believe that Jesse James jumped Devil’s Gulch, pointing to the uneven height of the opposing ledges. One of the volunteers showed us a 1900 photo of Devil’s Gulch. The image clearly proves that the rocky outcroppings were formerly covered with soil and nearly level with each other.

Staring at the photo, I could almost hear the thunder of hooves as the posse closed in. A shout of “We got him!” rang through the autumn air. The desperado wheeled his horse and dug in his spurs.

The posse watched in disbelief as horse and rider sailed over the yawning maw of the gulch. Jesse James landed safely and galloped off into the realm of legend.

The entire film crew was comprised of Bruce. He was cameraman, soundman, lighting guy and director all in one. He had each Historical Society volunteer sit beside a plaque that marked the jumping-off point and talk about the gulch and the celebrated leap. It was a very relaxed process, not at all like my preconceived notions about filmmaking.

When my turn came, I shared some local Jesse James lore. For instance, it’s my understanding that a Murray County posse didn’t so much chase the James brothers as trail them at a respectful distance. Once they crossed the county line, they were someone else’s problem.

It wasn’t much, but Bruce seemed pleased with my contribution. When we were done — it was “a wrap”, as we say in showbiz — I asked Bruce if he believed that Jesse jumped the gulch.

“He absolutely did. There’s no doubt in my mind!”

We made a film that day, but we also made history. And it’s fun to entertain the fantasy that 137 years from now, folks might still be talking about the things that happened that afternoon at Devil’s Gulch.

If you’d like to contact Jerry to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can e-mail him at: