LOOKING BACK: Banking on the High Plains

The brownstone at the corner of 10th and O Streets in downtown Gering has been home to several businesses over the years. But the cornice atop the building points back to a time when the first banks were being established in the community.

A few weeks back, I wrote that during the early settlement of the area, it was said that a few essentials must be in place before a community could be considered a real town. Some of them included a bank, a church, a newspaper and a post office.

The post office, with Oscar W. Gardner as postmaster, was the first agency to open in Gering once the town was incorporated on March 7, 1887. It was quickly followed by the Gering Courier newspaper, founded by publisher A.B. Wood.

Scotts Bluff County, with Gering as the county seat, was established in 1889. By then the Courier was the first newspaper published in the county. And the Bank of Gering became the first bank in the county.

A bank for Gering was a natural choice. All the businesses in early Gering were located along what is now M Street. It was a busy street, especially on Saturdays when entire families from around the area came to town to do their shopping and visit with friends.

One of the Bank of Gering’s sponsors was the town’s namesake — Civil War veteran Martin Gering, a native of Germany who originally spelled his name Gehring.

However, bank operations were headed up by C.W. Johnson, formerly of Custer County. The bank opened with a capital stock of $10,000, most of it in the building.

Another first for the bank: A.B. Wood made the first deposit in July 1887, before the bank was officially open. Johnson carried around the bank book recording the $75 deposit until a safe could be installed.

Once open, the Bank of Gering followed standard banking practices at the time. Loans were made at 3%. The catch? The 3% interest rate was monthly. Plus the interest was deducted from the amount the borrower received.

In his “Pioneer Tales” book, A.B. Wood wrote that money was easy to get, as long as you didn’t ask for too much.

“Most of us were presumed to be honest and a goodly proportion were honest,” he wrote. “It was well understood that about the top loan was $25, and that if you wanted to get $10, you had to start asking for $25.”

Bank manager Johnson was merely following the banking customs of the west, but he had trouble accepting them. A man of convictions, Johnson had religious objections to usury.

So a few years later, Johnson resigned and moved to Chicago, and later to Florida.

Johnson also started a family and devoted his time and substance to church work and philanthropy.

Politics had its own influence on early banking practices. When the new Scotts Bluff County was organized in 1889, it had to take on the expense of its first murder trial, even though there was no money to pay for it. Eventually, the state Legislature reimbursed the county for the cost of the trial.

When organized in 1889, Scotts Bluff County had no money because it couldn’t issue warrants, given there was no property levy upon which to draw them legally.

So the county commissioners came up with an idea (insert “uh-oh” here) to keep the money flowing and pay expenses in those early years.

Here’s how it worked. Bills against various county funds were filed, carefully scrutinized and audited for correctness. A form to that effect was then signed by the county board and certified by the county clerk.

Those certificates, called “audited claims,” could then be cashed or used for trade at the rate of 50 cents on the dollar. The bank even invested in them.

The process was far from legal, but it did help the county stay afloat during its first decade of existence.

Years later, in 1915, rumors were roiling around the community that county government was riddled with graft. So an independent auditor was hired to investigate the books.

The only discrepancy the auditor found was a $900 shortage in the account of County Treasurer Frank Beers. But when county officials inspected the books, it was discovered the county actually owed the money to the treasurer’s office.

jpurvis@starherald.com

We're always interested in hearing about news in our community. Let us know what's going on!

Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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