Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Breaking the Bank, but not the Spirit, of Crozet

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The new Bank of Crozet opened for business in 1908 on Crozet’s increasingly busy Main Street. This period postcard view was published by Crozet Pharmacy. Additional photographs accompany the print version of this article. (Photo courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection).

By Phil James

When the good townspeople of Crozet crawled into bed on that Monday evening in September 1908, there were high hopes for a sweet night’s rest. The day’s increasing clouds had culminated with showers, hiding the moon’s fading crescent. The cool, damp air on that autumn’s eve had caused many to pull up the covers just a little higher.

The sounds and rhythms of a railroad town have a certain comfort to them, and little notice was given to the usual 3:02 a.m. passage of fast train No. 2, or to the low “boom” that followed soon afterward. Sleep returned.

Ka-BOOM! Directly across the road from the train depot at John O’Neill’s house, beds shook, windows and dishes rattled, and everyone was suddenly awake. O’Neill, a highly respected Crozet merchant, sat bolt upright in the bedroom of his house that adjoined his store. Have mercy! What in the world… was there a crash over at the depot? Was someone breaking into the store?

The town canines immediately broadcast the news over the bark circuit, but all they knew was something big had just let go in the center of town (though one of them might have chortled that he had heard the sound of cats simultaneously hitting the ceilings throughout the area.)

J.T. O’Neill’s keen involvement in the business affairs of the village had led to a seat on the Executive Committee of the recently organized Crozet Board of Trade. The 50-year-old storekeeper shouted to his son John to join him, and they quickly dressed and dashed from the house, pausing momentarily with their lanterns to squint into the night darkness. They were met with the pungent aroma of sulfur and smoke wafting up the hill from the direction of the bank.

Sprinting the short yardage to the bank building, they noticed a window blown out and door ajar. Not a sound was to be heard. Cautiously stepping inside, they were confronted by a scene of devastation. When the first, undetected explosive charge did not dislodge the door of the bank’s burglar-proof Diebold safe, the crooks quickly had followed up with a second, more potent application.

The O’Neills, along with others who rushed to the site, found the building filled with smoke. Contents of the front room were utterly splintered and wrecked. Scattered on the floor, in addition to the safe’s door that had been blown from its hinges, were crowbars, sledgehammers and other tools later found to have been pilfered from the nearby blacksmith shop and the C&O Railway section house.

Word immediately was sent to R.E. Wayland, the bank’s cashier, who arrived within 45 minutes to discover that all of the bank’s critical papers and securities remained intact inside the safe. The thieves had scooped out only the previous day’s cash receipts of $800 before exiting the scene.

A posse of sorts was dispatched to search for the crooks, but all they turned up was evidence that the train depot also had been forcibly entered, though nothing was missing from there.

Apart from the devastation they left behind, no sign of the bank breakers was found. Evidence clearly showed that these bad boys had burgled before. Beneath the cloak of darkness they had exited the town at a fast trot, no doubt, with ears ringing, eyes burning, and reeking of brimstone like the hellions they again had proven themselves to be.

In spite of the affront this act was to the hard-working people of the town, no lasting damage was done. The institution’s steadfast officers, including bank president Russell Bargamin, vice-president E.L. Wayland, and cashier R.E. Wayland, had taken the prudent step of properly insuring the building, its contents and deposits.

It later was reported that “the bank had on the previous day sent by express $3,000 to one of its correspondents, which would have been taken by the robbers had it been in the safe.” Adjusted for inflation, today that near-haul would been close to $77,000. Poor timing—for the thieves.

Additionally, within ten days the operations of the bank would be moving into new quarters across the tracks on Main Street. The progressiveness of the village of Crozet during the early decades of the 20th century led to regular coverage of its affairs by the newspapers of the state. The Bank of Crozet’s move into its new, expanded facilities brought even more media coverage for the town.

In April 1908, months prior to the daring bank robbery of September 21, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the bank’s new 48’ by 38’ two-story cement block building with Corinthian columns “will be an ornament to the town.”

“The post-office and offices of the Bank of Crozet, with every modern convenience of banking room, fire and burglar-proof vaults and safety deposit boxes, will be on the first floor. The Crozet Cider Company, Crozet Cooperage Company, the Albemarle Manufacturing Company, and the offices of several other concerns will also be located on the first floor. The second floor will, perhaps, be used as lodge rooms by several fraternal organizations.”

Following the bank’s move, the Times-Dispatch wrote in December: “Crozet is now one of the most important towns in Piedmont Virginia and one of the largest shipping points on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. The population now reaches 750 prosperous and enterprising people. Crozet has a bank, seven stores, two grist mills, two wheelwright shops, one undertaking establishment, one plumbing and gas-fitting establishment and one blacksmith shop.”

Present day studies have not yet turned up evidence that those miscreants of a century ago were ever found, or that their plunder was ever discovered or returned. By virtue of the region’s thriving fruit industry, Crozet continued to prosper and grow. Nevertheless, as often has been the case, in spite of mankind’s best laid plans and insurance policies, natural elements hold great sway over economies, globally as well as locally.

Widespread, devastating droughts during the 1920s and ’30s brought the economies of many communities to their knees. The venerable Bank of Crozet, Inc. fell victim when local farmers and orchardists were unable to bring in successive crops, leading to default on too many of their loans. The Bank of Crozet, in 1932, finally was forced to shutter its operations.

What the bank robbers had failed to quash during the scattered overnight showers in September 1908, the prolonged lack of those showers ultimately accomplished.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook!  Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2014 Phil James 

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