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The First National Bank of Avoca is shown shortly after its construction, which took place sometime around 1918. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

From the bank to the bar: Avoca building dates back to about 1918

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AVOCA --- It is referred to as the pub, the pop shop, the liquor store or simply Avoca, as in "I'll meet you in Avoca." But those who have been around for awhile occasionally refer to the Avoca Municipal Liquor Store as the bank -- because it started out that way.

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Some of the history has been lost and there are a few gaps in the telling, but a few documents, notes and old stories floating around show that the brick building on the corner of U.S. 59 and Second Street was built in the early 1900s, possibly 1918.

Across the street, there used to be the Avoca State Bank. A booklet regarding the 1907 Minnesota Legislative session lists the Avoca State Bank as a solvent bank and depository that year. One document, preserved by Stanley "Chub" Schaeffer, states that E.B. Toner purchased two $100 shares in the Avoca State Bank in 1914. Cashier Otto P. Rakness signed the note. A certificate of appreciation given to Rakness for selling Liberty Bonds dated 1917 refers to the bank as the First National Bank of Avoca, as does a copy of a $5 bank note dated July 31, 1918, which would have been around the time the new building on the corner was constructed.

A non-dated photo of the inside of the bank shows a stately building, with several employees posing at their stations. On the front of the photo are handwritten the names Anna Peterson, Otto Rakness and Jack Haley. Anyone who has been in the Avoca Municipal Liquor Store in the past decade or so could note the similarities -- a large support beam, the basic floor plan. The placement of the long bank counter coincides with that of the current wooden bar.

Schaeffer said he believed the bank stayed solvent while some banks were crashing in the late 1920s, but then scandal broke. The bank closed unexpectedly, and the books disappeared.

Several articles that appeared in the Murray County Herald in the late 1920s tell a story of confusion and mystery.

"By action of its Board of Directors, the First National Bank of Avoca closed its doors voluntarily last Saturday morning and is now in the hands of a receiver," states an article dated May 10, 1928. "The closing came as a great surprise as the institution had been considered in a healthful condition. Lowness of reserve coupled with an overabundance of real estate for a national bank, however, is given as the cause."

A bank examiner from Minneapolis, W.J. Penningroth, reportedly met with the directors of the bank several days before the article appeared and required that the real estate issue be cleared up. A hasty meeting took place, and $33,000 of the $60,000 needed was raised, but the balance could not be raised before that fateful Saturday. According to the article, the directors opted to close the bank, rather than subject it to a run, which would have resulted in losses to the depositors.

"Directors of the bank state the bank will pay out well. The paper is in excellent shape and is practically all collectible. So while there may be some inconvenience to depositors, it is fairly certain that they will receive the greater part of their money in due time," the article states. "Work is now being done to reorganize the bank and officials are hopeful that within a few months the institution can be reopened, either as a national or state bank."

An article that appeared a week later stated someone broke the federal seal on the vault and removed a number of the records of the institution. Assistant cashier Jack Haley, who had reportedly been in charge of the books, was arrested. Because the combination of the vault was also known by Rakness and bookkeeper Martin Smestad, they were also held, but were not placed under arrest. A hearing that was supposed to take place May 17, 1928, was cancelled and the charges dismissed.

"The Herald gave no publicity to the theft last week as the arrest was wholly upon circumstantial evidence and action since taken proves the justification of that stand," the article concludes.

That July, a piece of the puzzle popped out of the Fulda lake.

An article dated July of 1928 states the books from the bank were retrieved from the water.

A page of an Avoca bank book washed to shore, the article explains, so government officials had the entire lake dragged in an attempt to locate the remaining books and portfolio belonging to Penningroth. Efforts by a local game warden and some others were successful, as the missing documents were recovered a short distance from where the first book was found, the article states.

The books were badly damaged, but First National Bank of Fulda receiver Harry Hardman, who was made receiver of the Avoca bank after it closed, was of the opinion he would be able to make out the necessary figures and make an accurate new set of books.

"All books, according to our informant, are intact save the Draft Register, from which all pages covering operations of the bank since April 1 have been removed," the article reads. "Frayed edges at the binding indicate these pages were torn from the book."

Operatives on the case said they had strong clues that they were hopeful would lead them to the guilty party or parties.

In 1929, two brief mentions of the bank are made. Both are from clippings with no date beyond 1929, which is handwritten. These clippings and the earlier articles came from the Murray County Historical Museum.

It is unknown which brief mention was printed first.

One simply states the Herald, bank receiver Harry Hardman and the National Banking Department in Washington were severely criticized in a letter written by former First National Bank President John S. Tolverson.

The second states J.S. Haley, former assistant cashier, had moved to St. Paul and was operating a small grocery store when he was arrested by the U.S. Marshal's Office after being charged with misappropriating bank funds and making false entries to conceal the same.

There is nothing to reveal whether or not Haley was ever convicted, but Schaeffer said he thought he remembered hearing that the charges were later dismissed.

Another article from the Herald, dated January 1930, states Hardman brought a lawsuit against several of the directors of the First National Bank of Avoca, claiming the directors should pay for making over-loans, poor loans and for general mismanagement. The case, which sought to recover $133,000, settled before going to trial, with the directors agreeing to pay a sum of $7,500.

"The receiver has already paid dividends aggregating 40 percent, and with the amount of the above settlement paid, another dividend of 20 percent will in all probability soon be made," the article concludes. "This is a splendid record, since the bank has been closed but a little more than a year."

Efforts to reopen the bank were unsuccessful, which Schaeffer thought was the result of opposition from local banks in surrounding communities of Slayton and Fulda. The bank building remained empty, and a document at the First National Bank of Fulda shows the city of Avoca purchased the building from the bank for $2,000 on April 29, 1931.

For the next 15 years, the status of the building is a bit murky. Current City Clerk of Avoca Karen Frisk, who located the purchase receipt at the bank in Fulda, thought the building may have been used to house city council meetings, other meetings and for storage.

Schaeffer, who was raised primarily in Avoca but moved with his family to California before graduating, returned to Avoca in 1946 after a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy. He believes a man by the name of John Weber may have been operating a bar on the premises when he got back, but then the city voted to open a municipal liquor store.

Avoca City Ordinance No. 53, signed and dated March 3, 1947, states a unanimous vote by the city council was adopted during a special meeting.

"A motion was made by Leroy Frisk that the council establish a municipal dispensary in the village of Avoca," a document states.

Schaeffer believes Peggy Dwire was the first manager of the bar, followed by a rapid succession of other mangers in the next couple of decades, including, and not in order, Lou Frisk, Glenn Tibbets, Frank Schaeffer and Joe Gorman.

"The liquor store was a real social hub," Schaeffer stated. "Then, like now, it was the only place in town to gather."

Schaeffer remembers that in the 1940s and beyond, everyone stopped in the bar for a drink.

"Most Wednesday and Friday nights, all the farmers came to town and everyone had a bottle in their pocket," he said. "They would stand in the street and say, 'Here, have a drink.'"

Mid-century and in the next couple of decades, there were dances in the local community hall, which brought a lot of people to town, Schaeffer said.

"One time we sold 600 tickets for a dance played by the Six Fat Dutchman, a wellknown group," he claimed. "I think one of them's wife was a Kirchner daughter that lived east of Avoca, and whenever they were around there was a big to-do."

In the early 1970s, Raymond "Spike" Poss took over management of the municipal store. His son Tom Poss, who lives in Avoca, said his father managed the bar for more than 23 years. Spike was very involved in his community, and Avoca's baseball field, Spike Poss Field, is named in his honor.

The Avoca Municipal Liquor Store is still a focal point of the community, where people gather to visit, chat about their day and have a drink. In a back room used for food storage and an ice machine, the vault still stands, complete with big metal door. Instead of holding money and documents, the shelves in the vault hold bottles of liquor and stored items.

Current manager Dee Ragan is the daughter of Frank Schaeffer, who managed the bar briefly in the mid-1960s.

In 2007, the Avoca City Council began discussion on expanding the bar. A lot next to the building was purchased and construction was finished in 2009, according to council member Paul Parenteau. The project, which cost approximately $105,000, added a back room to the building used to house two pool tables, games and a jukebox, plus new restrooms and a entrance onto an outside patio.

In the summer of 2009, patrons of the bar donated time and materials to expand the patio so that picnic tables could sit on cement. The open lot next to the patio provides space for horse shoe games and enjoying the nice weather when it comes around.

Schaeffer, who now lives in Slayton with wife Clarine, still stops up at the pub a few mornings a week to visit with friends and shoot a game of pool when players are available.

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