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Feature Article on Firstar Bank. Topic: DOWNTOWN/BUILDINGS
Written by Rich Wallace in September, 1999

FIRSTAR'S ROOTS IN SIDNEY SPAN 100 YEARS

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As the 20th century draws to a close, the Sidney Daily News is publishing a series of special inserts entitled "A 20th Century Diary," which traces the major events of our community in this century. Few local businesses have stood the test of 100 years of change. One of those which has, celebrates its 100th anniversary this week. In many ways, the employees and managers of this institution have helped guide our community on its successful journey over the last 100 years. This is the story, in brief, of Firstar Bank.

The original First National Bank actually organized here in 1864, but only lasted 13 years, closing its doors in the financial panic of 1877. The major player in the financial circles of western Ohio near the turn of the century was Lafayette M. Studevant. The Sidney resident formed the Peoples Savings and Loan Association in 1886. His financial prowess had resulted in his appointment as a national bank examiner by the Comptroller of Currency for President Grover Cleveland in 1888.

Studevant saw the need for a national bank in Sidney as a result of his work as a bank examiner. Along with W. H. Wagner, William Kingseed, W. T. Amos, C. R. Benjamin, A. J. Hess and others, he applied for authority to organize the county's first national bank. Many of the first directors at the new bank had joined him earlier in founding Peoples, thus forming an integral working relationship between the two institutions which has lasted to the present day. First National, in fact, shared space with Peoples from its inception until it occupied the old German American Bank space at 114 East Poplar Street in 1905.

Those leaders who formed the new venture, called the First National Exchange Bank, were also active in the Commercial Club. That group was successful in enticing many new businesses here, such as the Bimel Buggy Company, the Underwood Whip Company, and the Buckeye Churn Company. These growing firms needed capital, and "First National," as it was usually called, began to grow immediately. Its first day of operation was September 18, 1899. Total deposits in the bank exceeded $64,000 after just 65 days of operation. Gun-shy local investors apparently liked the guarantees of "safety and government supervision" which a national bank like First National could provide, and First National touted those advantages in its ads.

Mr. Studevant served as cashier of the bank until 1906, but his association with First National spanned nearly four decades. He was on the board from 1899 until 1938, and also served as president for seven years. Other business leaders who led First National in its early years were W. H. Wagner, J. C. Cummins, and W. R. Anderson. Harley Knoop and Cliff Hoying successfully guided the bank in its growth years of the 1960's and 1970's.

The Board members decided to move into the old German American Bank space on Poplar Street. Thus began an interesting chapter in the bank's history. With what transpired over the next two decades, one must wonder whether or not the building was jinxed. When the German American Bank failed in 1904, a number of wealthy families and several businesses were forced into bankruptcy.

Just a few years after the bank moved in, the first tragedy occurred. Charles Pfefferle, a barber who operated his shop in the basement of the bank's building, went to work one morning in a despondent mood. He was found by his son, dead, sitting in his barber chair. He had committed suicide with a handgun.  Another tragedy struck in 1914, as what most think was the worst fire in Sidney's history destroyed much of the north side of the square, including this space. First National Bank employees again moved in with the Peoples Savings and Loan operation until their new structure was completed..

Undoubtedly one of the proudest moments in the bank's history was when the doors of its fabulous new facility were opened for the first time on August 17, 1916. The rebuilt space at 114 East Poplar, now completely fireproof, was breathtaking. The Daily News described it as follows: "It is built entirely of Colorado Yule marble. Two magnificent Corinthian marble columns, 22 feet high, grace the handsome entrance. On entering, one is immediately struck by the intense beauty...of the interior. The ceiling is 28 feet high and is of art glass...The counters are of mahogany and marble."

The open house the bank held was one of the social events of the season. An amazing 3,000 people attended, constantly streaming through the gleaming facility. J. F. Studevant, the father of the bank's founder, belying his 90 years, met every guest at the front door throughout the day. By all appearances, it was the dawn of a golden age for First National Bank.

Perhaps it was the German American jinx again, but the location held one more surprise. Just after the bank opened on May 11, 1926, six robbers burst into the lobby. When cashier J. C. Cummins feigned ignorance when asked to open the safe, one of the thieves hit him over the had with his gun. After five minutes of quick work, they escaped with $35,000. Police Chief O'Leary and Sheriff Dilbone combined to catch and convict three of men by the end of the year. They each received the maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

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Sidney Daily News advertisement

Although the Depression years were difficult, and the payment of dividends were suspended, First National Exchange Bank survived and ultimately prospered once again. The first drive-in bank in the county was opened by First National in 1956. Located at the rear of its Poplar Street property, it had the first underground currency transfer system ever built in the country. It was used to safely transfer money into the main facility.

The bank opened its first branch bank in 1960 on West Michigan Avenue, followed by a number of others. The West Michigan was the site of three of the most notorious robberies in Sidney history, all committed by the same person. The third time was not the charm for the lone, masked gunman, who was caught and shot in the third robbery. Lloyd Blackford fired shots at Police Chief Warner, and one of the bullets lodged in his holster. Blackford was convicted.

The need for a larger downtown banking facility resulted in the decision to purchase the Court Street location of the Sidney Printing and Publishing Company and build a new facility. First National's headquarters were moved in April 1977.

The trend of consolidation among financial institutions involved First National Exchange Bank in several instances. It acquired the Loramie Banking Company in 1981and the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Anna 3 years later. After 89 years of independent existence, the bank was the object of an acquisition. The bank was acquired by Star Bank in 1988. Another acquisition by Star Bank resulted in the bank changing its name to Firstar in 1998.

As the bank's 100th anniversary arrives, it is interesting to speculate on what values and business principles have contributed to its prosperity and durability. Perhaps the answer can be found on the facade of the Court Street structure. Conceived and planned by Bill Ross and Karl Freytag, the cast aluminum sculpture contains 20 elements. They depict the key factors that have contributed to the progress of both the community and the bank.

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Above are some of the early employees of the First National Exchange Bank, now known as Firstar.  
Shown are:  L-R C.W. Nessler, teller; Miss Bertha Wells; Teal Robertson; and Asa H. Fogt, bookeeper. 

 

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A sculpture created by the nationally-known artist Robert Koepnick graces the exterior of the Firstar Bank in downtown Sidney.  Bank officials noted the sculpture reflects the institution's role in Sidney's development and incorporated some of the town's landmarks, such as the Big Four Bridge.  The facade was planned by Bill Ross and Karl Freytag. 

The central medallion contains the logo of the bank. It features clasped hands superimposed over the number "1", emphasizing the role of the bank in the community. The pamphlet printed by the bank describing the sculpture provides a fitting summary: "The bank has joined hands with the citizens of Sidney and Shelby County in promoting and encouraging, in many ways, individual. business and community growth. A continuation of this objective is embodied in the bank's slogan: Mutual Trust-Mutual Growth."

 

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