ELMORE CITY — As a child growing up in Elmore City, Glenna Gibson Ott recalls the phone always ringing during dinner time — it was usually a customer of her father, First State Bank President Harold Gibson, with a question about their account or in need of after-hours service.
“My dad didn't think a thing about it,” Ott said. “As a small-town banker, that's just what you had to do to stay in business, and once you help somebody out who has been in a bind, they never forget it.”
Decades later, Nancy Warren, vice president of First State Bank still is taking after-hours and weekend phone calls from customers. It's this kind of customer service that has allowed the tiny bank to survive for 110 years, she says.
“I really don't mind — the customers are my neighbors and friends too,” said Warren, who grew up in Elmore City and has worked at First State Bank for more than 20 years.
It's a philosophy that gives new meaning to the concept of banker's hours.
A community hub
With $9.5 million in assets, First State Bank in is the smallest bank in the state. By comparison, BOK Financial, the parent company of Bank of Oklahoma, has about $28 billion in assets. First State Bank had just $9,000 classified as troubled assets on its most recent financial report, and has been recognized by banking publications as one of the most financially sound banks in the country.
With a population of about 700, Elmore City sits on State Highway 74, a two-lane road that runs north-south through the rolling green hills of Garvin County. The town was the inspiration for the 1984 movie Footloose after a group of high school kids organized the town's first high school prom despite an ordinance that banned public dances. Each year in May, the town shuts down Main Street for its annual Footloose Festival — an event that includes lawn mower races, a car show, and yes, dancing.
The town boasts a recently opened Dollar General and is also the headquarters for the rural school district of Elmore City-Pernell Public Schools, which encompasses about 200 square miles.
Although Pauls Valley National Bank built a new brick branch complete with two drive-thru teller windows on Main Street a few years ago, First State Bank, with its attached post office, remains a hub of activity for the town and the surrounding farming and ranching community.
Warren is usually one of the first people in town to hear all the local gossip — but she takes pride in her ability for to keep a secret.
“It's bank business — bank business, that's what we always say,” she said.
Older than Oklahoma
The history of the tiny bank is a source of local pride.
The original First State Bank building is part of a row of nearly 100-year-old sandstone storefronts that sits across the street from the brick building that the bank moved into in the 1960s along with the town's post office.
First State Bank is restoring the old building and has plans to turn it into a museum where schoolchildren can visit to learn about local history. Bank officials hope to have the project completed by October, to coincide with a celebration of the bank's 110th anniversary.
“We think that making that connection with the schoolchildren will be important to making this happen,” said J.R. McCaskill, a town historian who has been helping with the renovation efforts.
The bank walls hold part of Elmore City's history. The walls were made from hand-molded sandstone taken from a local creek bed — there were no nearby rail lines when the bank building was constructed to haul in granite or limestone.
The sandstone bank was built after fires destroyed part of the town's original wooden business district in 1910 and again in 1911.
A storied history
In 1917, robbers used explosives to blow a hole in the front of the sandstone building to gain access to cash in a safe at the bank, but the safe had been emptied in advance by bank employees who had been tipped off to the robbery plot.
“You can still see on the front of the building the place where it was damaged and repaired from the explosion,” McCaskill said.
In one version of the local lore, the cash was hidden in a water well to keep the robbers from finding it.
The original carved wood bank teller windows at the bank are still intact in the building, and the back room is filled with stacks of dusty leather-bound bank ledgers dating back a century. Locals say they can find the handwritten names of long-dead relatives in the books.
Ott, whose family owned most of the bank for three generations, began working at the old bank building at the age of 6 or 7, while her grandmother, Amanda Raines Gibson, ran the bank. Ott would dust and sweep the old bank for five cents an hour.
“I was always fascinated by when I went to the bank how friendly everyone was and how everyone knew everyone else who was working behind the tellers' cage,” Ott said.
Thriftiness breeds success
The bank has managed to survive all of these years not only because of its customer service and commitment to the community, but also because of the Gibson family's thriftiness, Ott said.
“All of the fixtures in that building — the teller windows, everything was secondhand,” Ott said.
Ott recall her father, the bank president, and uncle Cortez Gibson, who also once ran the bank, wearing resoled shoes. The family supplemented their income by keeping livestock.
“Everyone thinks bankers are rich, but that's not the case,” Ott said. “In reality, you work very hard.”
Elmore City resident Dwane Cassell, 74, is working repair and restore the exterior of the bank building with the help of his two grandsons. He remembers cashing his paychecks at the old bank building from summers spent haying in Garvin County.
“It was very important in the community then because it was the only bank here,” Cassell said. “It's a part of the history of the town.”
First State Bank's roots can be traced to one of Elmore City's first merchants, J.P. Gibson, who organized a private bank in 1902 out of the front of his general store on the town's Main Street.
The bank was eventually charted as First State Bank in 1903, and received its charter from the Oklahoma State Banking Department soon after statehood in November 1907. Although other banks in the state also claim the same honor, First State Bank has documentation that it was the first bank in the state to receive its charter after Oklahoma gained statehood.
Hall-of fame baseball player Johnny Bench was at one time a part owner of the bank and once handed out autographs on Main Street in Elmore City.
Under new ownership
First State Bank has been owned for the past few years by members of the Christensen family in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City attorney Clay Christensen is the majority owner of the bank, and a brother and sister are also part owners. Clay Christensen's brother, Wade Christensen, husband of Gov. Mary Fallin, is not part of the ownership group.
“We wanted to make sure the bank stayed in the community and wanted to sell it to someone who would keep it local,” said Gene Cobb, First State Bank president.
Clay Christensen had been the bank's attorney for a number of years before the bank's directors approached him about buying the bank.
“They were thinking it that it was time to sell it and they wanted it to remain local and have someone keep it in Elmore City,” Christensen said. “And, of course, I was familiar with the bank inside and out and knew it was clean as a whistle.”
Under the Christensens' ownership, First State Bank is trying to do more lending and slowly expand the bank with more home loans — but prudently.
“When we purchased the bank, they weren't really doing much lending and we wanted to change that,” Clay Christensen said. “When you are a very small bank, you can't really afford to have a lot of bad loans.”
Dealing with regulations
New lending regulations from the federal Dodd-Frank reform law make mortgage lending tougher, especially for smaller banks, Christensen said. But First State Bank has been seeing some success, he said. The bank mainly keeps its mortgages in-house, but also sometimes sells them on the secondary market.
“A lot of our customers want their loans to stay in-house; they want to know where their money is going and who they are dealing with — they want that personal interaction,” said Kayli Christensen, Clay Christensen's niece, who is in charge of mortgage lending for First State Bank.
First State Bank, which has one ATM in Elmore City, also just introduced online banking for its customers.
Ott, who still serves on the bank's board of directors, said she is glad to see the bank embracing new technology, but she also believes that the personal touch is what will enable the bank to continue to thrive in Elmore City.
“I like to see the bank being high tech but, on the other hand, I want it to be high touch and take really personal care of the customers,” she said.