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Oklahoma's smallest bank survives, thrives in Elmore City

Elmore City is home to the state's smallest bank, based on assets, but the business is an integral part of the community.
by Brianna Bailey Modified: September 1, 2013 at 9:00 am •  Published: September 1, 2013

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.

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by Brianna Bailey
Business Writer
Brianna Bailey has lived in Idaho, Germany and Southern California, but Oklahoma is her adopted home. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Univerisity of Oklahoma and has worked at several newspapers in Oklahoma and Southern...
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