NY Bank Displays Classic Cannonball Safe

Dec. 6, 2012
The 3,500-pound steel safe, created by Victor Safe & Lock Co. in 1899, was used by the bank prior to the development of vaults and could hold as much as $100,000.

Dec. 06--DEXTER -- The history of the village's banking, and in many ways its community, was on display last week as several items from the First National Bank of Dexter were presented by the Dexter Historical Society.

Most prominent of the items displayed at the Dexter Museum, Brown Street, was a Cannonball safe, nicknamed for its round shape, used by the bank since its founding in 1906. The approximately 3,500- pound steel safe, created by Victor Safe & Lock Co. in 1899, was used by the bank prior to the development of vaults and could hold as much as $100,000. The safe's screw-in door lock was tight enough to prevent the use of liquid nitroglycerin explosive and was controlled by three internal timers that could be set overnight to prevent it from being opened outside of set business hours.

"That's a high-end unit," said Ronald R. Smith, a LaFargeville locksmith who opened the safe for the historical society this fall. He told attendees that he owned one of that style and had seen only three others in decades as a locksmith.

A discoloration could be seen above the safe's door, where a burglar decades before reportedly had attempted to break through its exterior with a hammer, with little success.

The safe became a showpiece in the bank building's lobby at Brown and Water streets for about 15 years after the bank's restructuring in the 1970s, before being moved to the then-Dexter Sulphite Mill, where it was left unopened for about another 15 years. The historical society obtained the safe this summer.

Mr. Smith, of Advanced Safe and Lock, spent several months attempting to open the safe, struggling to get through a thick layer of rust that had formed during its years of closure. After applying a penetrating oil every day for months, he was able to open the empty safe around Labor Day weekend.

Mr. Smith called opening the safe an "interesting project."

"You don't get to work on that kind of stuff anymore," he said.

The 3,500-pound steel safe, created by Victor Safe & Lock Co. in 1899, was used by the bank prior to the development of vaults and could hold as much as $100,000.

Other artifacts shown were a letter announcing share distribution during the bank's merger with National Bank of Northern New York, a typewriter used at the bank and a press used to void checks. The colorful paper the press would create led to its use for making confetti for staff weddings.

Nathan A. Holloway, one of the speakers during the event, said the bank was a community hub from its founding in 1906 to its closing in 1973.

"We really had a close-knit relationship," he said. "It was like an extended family."

Mr. Holloway, who started working for First National Bank of Dexter in 1965, stayed with the company for a total of 40 years as the bank moved between mergers with National Bank of Northern New York and then Key Bank.

He told the audience things were much different when he started with the bank. The bank was able to provide a guaranteed rate of return for all customers. The bank's shares were limited to only 2,000, and they frequently were passed down through generations of family. A handshake was a guarantee of repayment of a loan, and many farmers would adjust their spending to ensure they could keep up with their payments and maintain their good credit.

"It was a completely different world," Mr. Holloway said.

Mr. Holloway told attendees one of his most memorable days on the job was when the bank was robbed of $6,000 at gunpoint May 19, 1970, by James M. Shea, a 63-year-old construction worker from Malone. Mr. Holloway said he had just returned from lunch and was in his office when the robbery took place.

"I remember as this was going on that it felt like a movie," Mr. Holloway said. "I could not believe this was happening."

Mr. Holloway identified Mr. Shea after he was found by law enforcement in the bar area of the Brownville Hotel. Mr. Holloway noted Robert J. Thomas, then a part-time deputy for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department and the villages of Dexter, Glen Park and Brownville Police Departments and now a Jefferson County legislator, was the one who found Mr. Shea's car.

He also praised Mr. Dingman and Dudley B. Chapman, two of the bank's leaders during its life, for providing strong customer service and allowing the bank to grow several times.

While noting the expansion of banking services since he started in the industry, he admitted looking back fondly to his days working for the former bank, and the individual treatment it could offer customers.

"It was a good way of doing business, and I miss it," he said.

Copyright 2012 - Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.