Bank History

A History of Baraboo State Bank
     When the Sauk County Bank was founded in Baraboo in 1857, the United States was comprised of just thirty-one states. When Wisconsin had been admitted to the Union just nine years earlier, the only states west of the Mississippi were Iowa and Texas. In the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, Wisconsin was part of the vast American frontier and a land of opportunity for the flood of settlers who would steadily claim its forfeited Native American lands. The first white settlers were those from the eastern United States seeking land and less crowded conditions, as well as unrivaled business and political opportunities. One such pioneer was Simeon Mills who was born in 1810 in Connecticut and raised in Ohio before becoming one of the earliest settlers in the Wisconsin Territory.
     Mills arrived on the shore of Lake Monona at the newly proclaimed territorial capitol of Madison on June 10, 1837. The city essentially existed on paper because only two or three buildings had been erected by that time. One of them was a log cabin built by Eben and Roseline Peck as a boarding house for workers constructing the territorial capitol building. Some years later the Pecks would move to the Baraboo Valley. Mills soon added to the building stock by constructing a store, which also doubled as the post office and a saloon. Mills’s fortunes quickly rose along with the rapid growth of the new capitol. In 1850 the census lists Simeon Mills’s profession as “lumberman” with real estate holdings worth $30,000. The profession cited does little to hint at Mills’s actual accomplishments. For many years he was the only justice of the peace in Dane County and later became the first State Senator from Dane County. He also served as Clerk of the Territorial Supreme Court and the US District Court and was the last Territorial Treasurer. His business ventures included a partnership in Madison’s first newspaper, but his real fortune came from real estate holdings. It was said that Mills owned much of the real estate in Madison at one time or another. Later Mills would become interested in a small but growing village along the banks of the Baraboo River.
     At the time that Madison was being shaped from the wilderness, pressure already was building to open the lands north and west of the Wisconsin River. In 1837 a treaty was signed with the Ho-Chunk people which opened this land for settlement. Sauk County was formed in 1840, although a county government would not get started for another four years. When it did, the county seat was originally located at Prairie du Sac, a settlement of Yankees or easterners on the west bank of the Wisconsin River across from Dane County. It was decided to move the county seat to the location of the Baraboo Valley rapids after a referendum in 1846. In May of 1847 two villages were platted one of which was platted by a local mill owner mostly south of the river and called Baraboo. Adjoining to the north the other village was laid out by the county government as the new county seat on the shelf of land above the river. The village was named Adams by one of the county commissioners and designed in the New England style around a central square. Lots were sold by the county to pay for the construction of the county courthouse and county jail. With the two villages plats literally touching and the existence of other villages named Adams, it eventually was decided that the entire community should be known as Baraboo.
     Sauk County and its county seat, Baraboo, grew quickly. Lots around the Square sold well and soon a new wood courthouse and log jail were constructed on the north side of the Square. In 1850 on the south side of the Square, John Taylor constructed four store buildings to serve the growing community. Each building was slightly different but all followed the Greek Revival style of the day. The buildings were placed with vacant space in between to prevent the spread of fire, should one ever occur. The first building, known as Taylor’s Hall, was on the southeast corner of Broadway and Third Avenue. The second floor contained a large room where all manner of gatherings could take place. The next of Taylor’s buildings sat about 40 feet to the east and became one of Baraboo’s biggest dry goods stores. For many years it was known simply as “Headquarters.” The building still exists today at 139 Third Avenue and is the oldest building on the Square. Another thirty or so feet to the east sat Taylor’s third building which he built as a bank. Taylor didn’t open his own bank, possibly due to a lack of capital, but he did provide the accommodations including a safe should someone desire to rent his building. It would be seven more years however before Baraboo had its own bank.
     Even without a bank Baraboo continued to grow as more industry utilized the water power along the river. Five dams eventually were constructed in the vicinity. Baraboo also became a local trading center for area farmers. Eventually, though, a bank would become a necessity in the growing community. In 1853 the Sauk County Standard lamented the lack of a bank saying that local businessmen had to “send to Madison or Milwaukee often, to buy drafts & checks, which is very inconvenient and accompanied with some trouble.” By 1856 Baraboo had a full complement of business establishments, including eleven dry goods stores, seven grocery stores, six blacksmiths, five public houses (taverns), four shoe shops, two drug stores, two jewelers and one book store. Industry included four furniture factories, four sawmills, three sash and door factories, one plow factory and even a pottery factory among other operations.
     By 1857 Baraboo was a banking opportunity that now caught the eye of investors from Madison. Banks were springing up all across the badger state. By early 1857 there were fifty-one institutions with a combined capital of over $3 million, with six more banks set to open. Finally, on March 28, 1857, the Baraboo Republic was able to report that a “Banking Company” was about to establish a bank in the village. The paper reported that Mr. Taylor would construct a new building for the bank near his store on Third Avenue. Since building number three, the original building that Taylor had built for a bank, was being used by H. A. Peck for a drug store, it was now unavailable. This would place the newly built bank on the vacant land between buildings number two and three of Taylor’s Row.
     As the spring of 1857 progressed, details about the new bank slowly began to emerge in the newspapers. The word on the street was that two Madison men were behind the bank. In fact, on March 25 John Wright and Terrell Thomas, both listed from Madison, filed a Certificate of Incorporation with the Sauk County Register of Deeds to start a new bank in Baraboo with a capital of $50,000. The new bank would be called the Sauk County Bank and would open on June 1. The rumors were soon confirmed when materials appeared on the ground for a new building on Third Avenue. By mid-May construction was well enough along for Taylor to transfer the safe he had originally located in his third building into the new bank building. By July 16th the building was fully completed and ready for occupancy.
     While the village anticipated the opening of its first bank, behind the scenes things had changed dramatically. A few days earlier a second Certificate of Incorporation had been filed for the Sauk County Bank, but this time by Terrell Thomas and Madison pioneer and entrepreneur Simeon Mills. It is not known why the original certificate was no longer valid but the bank had missed its June 1 opening date. More than likely, John Wright could not come up with the funds for his half of the shares. The second certificate shows that Thomas had already moved to Baraboo after the first certificate was filed, but in reality had actually moved back to Sauk County. In about 1854 at the age of 28 Terrell Thomas had come to Sauk County with his father’s family, which settled in Excelsior Township. Thomas did not stay long, however, in the wilderness of Sauk County, especially after having lived in Baltimore for three years where he learned skills in commerce and banking. Thomas was hired as cashier of the State Bank in Madison by Samuel Marshall, bank president, and remained in that position until 1857 when he sought a partner to start his own bank in the growing community of Baraboo. Thomas met Mills in Madison and in July of 1857 the two became the founders of Baraboo’s first bank. Though Mills never lived in Baraboo, he provided the backing and good name the bank needed to be successful. It would be Terrell Thomas, however, who would operate the bank and provide guidance for its growth during its earliest years.


     On July 20, 1857, the Sauk County Bank officially opened for business. The bills that the bank would issue were printed in the latest style in black and red ink in denominations of ones, twos, threes and fives. Not long after the bank opened the Panic of 1857 gripped the nation when a variety of factors led to bank closings in the East and elsewhere. In early January of 1858 the bank issued its first Semi-Annual report indicating a solid start to the banks activities. The bank had weathered the Panic of 1857 virtually unscathed with only $18.00 from suspended banks on hand and more than $88,000 in resources.
     In January of 1859, with a year and a half of experience behind him, Terrell Thomas was looking toward the future of the bank’s operations and purchased the lot at the southwest corner of Oak and Third. The corner lot was only 22 by 66 feet but was one of the choicest commercial properties on the Square at the time. The Baraboo Republic reported that Thomas intended erecting “a substantial stone building, during the coming season…,” but the construction of a new building for the bank would in fact wait another nine years. The outbreak of the Civil War would dampen all developments in Baraboo, for it was not until two years after the wars end that a new building was contemplated again. An internal rearrangement of the bank would also consume attention in 1863 when Simeon Mills retired as president, handing the reigns over to Terrell Thomas. Thomas’s brother, Thomas Corwin Thomas, would take over the position of cashier. Another Thomas brother, William, also was employed at the bank, and in fact slept there every night with his watchdog. The early months of 1867 would bring plenty of excitement for William Thomas and his position as guardian of the bank. In January his trusty watch dog snapped and attacked Thomas when he protected the errand boy who had come to make the morning fire and had somehow evoked the dog’s rage. The dog was brought into submission with a chair but not before leaving a severe bite on Thomas’s arm. Six weeks later, William Thomas, would awake to the noise of burglars breaking in only to discover that it was actually towns people alerting him to the fact that the building was on fire. Though tenacious, his new dog was too small to have affected his awakening.
     During the early morning hours of March 12, 1867, the Sauk County Bank would endure its first trial by fire. Even if William Thomas had first seen the fire consuming the neighboring store to the east, by the time he had summoned help it still would have been too late. John Taylor’s wisdom in keeping his original stores spread apart for fire protection had been compromised when the bank was built between them. The bank was so close to the store to the east that the rainwater from its roof poured onto the exterior stairs leading up to the second floor above the store. A little more room had been left to the west between the bank and the Headquarters building, which ultimately saved Taylor’s second building. Though the fire had started to consume it, Headquarters was saved by buckets of water and “vigorous snowballing.” The bank building, however, and the store to the east where the fire had started were a complete loss. Though the building was gone, the Baraboo Republic assured its readers that Thomas’s loss “aside from the inconvenience it puts him to, is trifling.” Thomas issued his own statement to the paper thanking the citizens that had helped him remove what they could and assured them that the contents of both safes were perfectly unharmed. Thomas informed his patrons that he would set up operations in the nearby store of Avery & Green. Aside from being an inconvenience, the loss truly was only temporary. One month before the fire Thomas had announced that he would finally build a new brick building on the corner lot he had purchased in 1859.
     With an eye to impress, Thomas had engaged Milwaukee’s premier architect, E. Townsend Mix, to design a new building for the Sauk County Bank. Born in Connecticut, Mix had come to Milwaukee in 1856 as a representative of Chicago architect, Wm. W. Boyington. Mix soon hung out his own shingle, however, and became one of Milwaukee’s first formally trained architects. By 1867 Mix had already served as state architect for Wisconsin and had even submitted plans for the Kansas State Capitol. Thomas knew that architect Mix would bring all of the modern sophistication of Milwaukee design to bear on his new bank. The building would be built in the stylish Italianate style with arched windows and decorative brackets holding up the eaves. Mix’s design called for a two-story brick building to be faced with Milwaukee “cream city” brick and trimmed with stone. With no railroad in Baraboo, the facing bricks from Milwaukee would have to be hauled by train to Kilbourn (today Wisconsin Dells) and brought by wagon load to Baraboo. The remaining bricks for the building would be made locally and the building would be built by local mason, George Holah. While something of an amateur architect himself, having designed the brick Sauk County Courthouse, Holah knew that the bank would be the utmost in fashion.
     While bricks for the new bank had begun arriving in February, construction itself would not begin until early June. In the meantime, Thomas had constructed a temporary wood structure on the rear part of the corner lot and moved his banking operations there in mid-April. When construction finally did begin, it was not long before the masons had the walls out of the ground. In early July the doors for the new vault arrived and were reported as “ponderous affairs.” The masons would build the doors and their frames into the construction of the building. A slight delay in building progress would occur later that month due to the lack of locally made brick, but by mid-August the masons had reached the second story level. Another delay in early September would occur, not from the lack of building materials, but of laborers. The 1867 crop of hops would require nearly every able bodied person to help harvest it including contractor Holah and his men. Though the hops harvest slowed the construction of the building, its influence on the bank could not be overstated, and in fact was the main reason the new bank building was being built.
     Hops, as an essential ingredient for beer, was first brought to Sauk County by New York staters who were among the first settlers. With the destruction of eastern crops by the hops louse in the early 1860s, Sauk County farmers quickly saw the potential for huge profits as the price for hops rose every year. By the time the new bank was being built, prices were at their highest reaching 55 to 70 cents per pound, three to four times higher than in 1861. With roughly two million pounds being harvested in Sauk County in 1867 alone, well over $1 million was sifting through the local economy. Farmers with as few as seven acres of hops in cultivation could net profits of thousands dollars, as evidenced when townsman Wm. S. Grubb witnessed an aged farmer from near Rock Springs nervously enter the Sauk County Bank with a bank roll of $8,000. Farmer Simonds cleared up his debts and instructed bank president, Terrell Thomas, to put the remaining $6,000 in US bonds to pay for his retirement. His wife waited outside in a new lumber wagon filled with packages and pulled by a new team of horses outfitted in harness with silver plate. Grubb noted that, “Perhaps no person is so alive to the fact of the great abundance of money and the necessity of having a place for its safe keeping as friend Thomas, of the Sauk County Bank. The architectural skill of E. Townsend Mix, of Milwaukee, has placed him in a possession of a substantial building, built of the famous brick of the Cream City; the ponderous doors of its burglar and fire defying safe affording absolute safety to all the valuables that may be entrusted to its keeping.”
     A few days before Christmas of 1867 the new bank building was completed and Thomas could finally move everything out of the temporary quarters he had erected and commence operations in the up-to-date and stylish new building. The Baraboo Republic , which had earlier hailed its construction as “marking an epoch” in village history, called it “not only the handsomest block in our county, but as one surpassed by very few in the interior of the State.” With its prime corner location, the bank drew attention from every passer-by who could not help but notice its cream colored brick from Milwaukee, arched windows, and stylish cornice some 28 feet off the ground. Inside, the bank was equally as impressive with a central banking room of 20 by 24, the massive vault with its “ponderous” doors, a separate President’s room, and sleeping room in the back for security personnel. The building had cost over $10,000, a fifth of what the bank’s capital had been some ten years earlier. The cost had been born entirely by Thomas, however, with personal funds.
     Surrounded by boom-town wooden buildings of every size, the bank was one of the few brick structures on the Square at the time it was completed. Local brick yards could usually only produce enough bricks for a few buildings each year. While Baraboo had prospered until this point, it still desperately needed a rail line to connect it to broader markets. Though attempts at a rail line through the heart of Sauk County had been attempted almost from its inception, it was not until after the Civil War and a few years after Thomas’s new bank building was completed that efforts were successful. Terrell Thomas, heavily involved in the efforts, was elected president of the Baraboo Air Line Railroad Company in July of 1870. The Company held the rights to the passage through the Devils Lake gap and had organized with intentions of laying track through it. It was not long before the Chicago and North Western Rail Road purchased the interests of the company and commenced laying track. The long awaited rail line reached Baraboo on September 8, 1871, and was completed through Sauk County picking up North Freedom, Rock Springs, Reedsburg and LaValle by the end of 1872. The effects on Baraboo and the economy could hardly be overstated. The population of Baraboo went from 2,758 people in 1870 to 4,594 by 1880, an increase of over two-thirds.
     Thomas and his new bank were poised for the tremendous growth that Baraboo and Sauk County would see in the years after the arrival of the rail road in September of 1871. Thomas’s pride in his new building, however, would face a severe test just a few short months later when the Sauk County Bank would endure its second trial by fire. Only a month after the first train arrived in Baraboo, its citizens learned of the incredible fire that destroyed a vast portion of Chicago and slightly later of the fire that burned 1.5 million acres of Wisconsin land around Peshtigo on the same day. Conditions were dry that fall in the upper Midwest and Baraboo witnessed its own version of the Great Chicago Fire on Sunday, December 3, 1871. At half past noon the fire alarm was given as smoke was seen pouring from the roof of the general store just four doors west of the bank. With churches just having been let out, a large crowd gathered quickly on the Square to assist in fire fighting and salvage efforts. Thomas’s bank building was surrounded on both the west and south sides by wood buildings which soon caught on fire. To lessen the danger to the south side of the bank, Thomas, lead the efforts to tear down the nearby building which he owned and pull it away from the bank to lessen the threat. While the bank’s solid brick walls to the south and west helped reduce its risk, it was not immune from the danger. Its wooden cornice eventually caught on fire and was badly burned. The building would have been gutted if efforts had not been successful to keep the roof from catching on fire. A damp snow was falling, which helped matters, but by day’s end seven buildings lay in ruin around the bank. The interior of the bank also had been damaged when the interior furnishings were hurriedly rushed out to the safety of the street. The Sauk County Bank was lucky though to have survived its second fire. The following year a new cornice was installed along with a stone parapet wall on top, increasing the height of the bank.
     In 1872 Thomas also erected a two-story addition to the south end of the bank to replace the wooden structure he had been renting out. The addition was built with the same specifications as the original bank building with matching brick and cornice, and was, again, occupied by the same jeweler who had been displaced as a result of the fire. Thomas also had stone sidewalks laid down on the two sides of the bank, thus increasing its appearance and convenience. By the end of the year the bank was restored to normal and Thomas could look back on fifteen years of banking in Baraboo. His time with the bank would soon come to an end, however, as other businessman also saw the success of the bank.


     In January of 1873 the Baraboo Republic announced that another bank would be starting up in Baraboo, this time named the First National Bank of Baraboo (not to be confused with the more recent institution with that name). D. S. Vittum, George Mertens, H. Rich, W. B. Rich, and T. T. English were directors with Vittum serving as president, Mertens as vice-president and W. B. Rich as cashier. The Riches were relatively newcomers to Baraboo, but the others were early settlers of Baraboo and well known in the community. The new bank, organized under the national banking system set up in 1863, would have a capital of $50,000 insured with United States Bonds and currency from Washington D.C. The bank would operate out of Merten’s office until other accommodations were secured. The newspaper reported that, “With the First National Bank, and with already one of the soundest State Banks of the State, Baraboo will be well provided with banking facilities.”
     Baraboo would have two banks for only a short time, however. On March 31, 1873, the Sauk County Bank along with its handsome building were purchased by the First National Bank of Baraboo and taken over by the officers of the latter institution. Terrell Thomas’s bank would now be in their hands, allowing him to pursue other business interests. The Baraboo Republic praised the accomplishments of the bank and Thomas by saying,
“Although organized, as it was, during a period of general distrust and financial embarrassment, the standing of the Sauk County Bank during its whole existence has been safe and secure. This, in a great measure, was due to the careful management and personal attention given its business by Mr. T. Thomas. Add to this the attention and assistance he has at all times given to everything of a public character, having for its object the promotion of the interests of our town and county, it is not to be wondered at that Mr. Thomas was ready to take up with the first opportunity that offered to release him from the load of business that was accumulating rather than decreasing, upon his hands.”
The transition was seemingly a smooth one, for no major depositors were lost, a testimony to the trust people showed in the reputation of the bank and its officers.
     In the spring of 1874 a new face would come to be seen by customers at the bank. Seventeen year old Jacob Van Orden was employed as bookkeeper and general errand boy. Recently a student at Ripon College, Van Orden excelled at the tasks given him and by 1876 was promoted to assistant cashier. Van Orden would continue to climb the corporate ladder at the bank, eventually becoming cashier in 1878 and ultimately president. He would be one of the longest bank employees ever, serving over fifty years. In 1880, only six years after he started at the bank, the Sauk County Democrat, in a review of downtown businesses, gushed about Van Orden’s sterling qualities stating he was, “accommodating, polite and affable and is universally popular with everybody. The rich and the poor all receive at his hands the same courteous treatment, and there seems to be an anticipation of the wants and desires of the customers, and a disposition to supply the wants or demands.” The paper also declared that the bank was in a “flourishing condition” and that it was “indispensable to the community.”


     The year of 1880 was an eventful one at the bank. Early in the year, Van Orden helped the bank transition after the untimely death of its president, Colonel David S. Vittum on April 10. Just three days after president Vittum's death the bank was again endangered by fire when the wood-framed corner drug store and another building across the street burned down. The heat from the fire was intense enough at times to endanger the bank, evidenced by the melted metal cornice and broken windows of another nearby building. Ultimately, as with all downtown fires, new brick buildings would be built to replace earlier wooden buildings. At the end of 1880 the bank surrendered its national charter and was again organized under state charter. This time the name was changed to the Bank of Baraboo. Van Orden, then only twenty-four years old and cashier, was already well respected by the community and helped the bank retain its image as a stable and safe institution. Vice-president, George Mertens, ultimately became president in 1882 after purchasing Vittum’s stock. Mertens would be president until 1908 and would oversee a period of tremendous growth with a seven-fold increase in bank resources during his presidency. The bank would cross the $1 million mark during his tenure.


     The 1880s were boom years for Baraboo and the downtown reflected this with the construction of many new brick buildings. A brick addition was added to the courthouse in 1884. That year, Baraboo also saw the inception of an institution that would forever change the community and the bank when five of the Ringling brothers gave the first performance of their circus show on May 19, 1884, just two blocks from the bank building.
     The bank and the circus would have a long-standing relationship, beginning in 1885 when the first loan of $100 was given to the Ringling Brothers to help with their spring opening expenses. As the circus grew, loans became larger, as did the eventual profits which would be deposited with the bank. The Ringling Brother’s relationship with the bank and with Van Orden as its manager would become one of mutual trust. In 1888 after a disappointing ten days on the road fighting perpetual rain and being bogged down in the mud, the brothers were forced to send word to Baraboo asking for a loan of $1,000. The loan was issued by the bank but ultimately not used by the brothers. The security of having a strong financial partner, however, was of great importance to the circus and in 1890 the outfit was large enough to switch to rail cars instead of horse-drawn wagons.
     While it is true that the Bank of Baraboo was instrumental in helping out the fledgling Ringling Brothers Circus and remained a financial partner with them for many years, there are also stories of the Ringling Brothers helping to save the bank during at least one financial panic. Several versions of a legend exist where the Ringling Brothers saved the bank from a potentially devastating "run" when one of the brothers walked in with bags full of money to be deposited. The stories are often centered around the Financial Panics of 1893 or 1907. While the whole truth will probably never be known, the stories most closely fit the events of 1893. One version of the story was written by Alice Lancaster, Charles Ringling's granddaughter. Lancaster stated that on a Sunday night in 1893 the bank was fearful of a run when it opened on Monday morning due to the national panic which had started after a plunge in the stock market leading to bankruptcies and bank closures. Someone suggested that the only depositor big enough to help the bank was the Ringling Brothers Circus. A route card was found which indicated that the circus was less than one hundred miles away. A horse and rider were dispatched to get help from the circus, caught just in time before leaving for its next engagement (something it didn't normally do on a Sunday night). According to Lancaster, the Ringlings were more than happy to help and John Ringling himself offered to ride back with the deposit. John Ringling arrived just as the bank opened, making a big show of the deposit, thus allaying patron’s fears that there might not be enough money in the bank for all withdrawals. At least two other accounts have Charles Ringling making the deposit that saved the bank, even stating that the bank refused to accept deposits after the Ringling deposit so that it could count all of the money on hand.
     While many Ringling stories are known to be fabrications, there is some truth to the deposit accounts. In late July of 1893 the financial panic did reach Baraboo and one of Baraboo's three banks at the time, Baraboo Savings Bank, did close its doors on July 29th. In a lengthy article about the closing The Baraboo Republic of August 3 commented about Baraboo's other two banks, stating,
"The closing of the Baraboo Savings Bank Saturday created a little flurry in financial circles and many anticipated a heavy run on the other banks. Every thing has been quiet at the First National. The Bank of Baraboo experienced what was said to be a run, but it didn't look like it. When the bank closed Saturday and Monday nights there was more money in the bank than when the doors were opened for business in the morning. During the past two days the excitement has subsided. The people of Baraboo showed great judgment in not causing a general run on the banks."
In another column the paper reported,
"The Bank of Baraboo received in deposits last Saturday nearly $500 more than was paid out...With $80,000 in gold and greenbacks displayed on the counters of the Bank of Baraboo the anxious depositor hardly knew whether he was in sore need of his money."
     The story of a German farmer who had withdrawn all of his savings, amounting to $600, from the bank also was recounted. The sum was paid in silver, a sum total of thirty-seven pounds of coins. After fearfully hauling around his savings for awhile, he returned to the bank to deposit it but was told that the bank had “all the silver it knew what to do with.”
     Baraboo’s other newspaper of the period, the Sauk County Democrat, was even more specific about events surrounding the late July weekend commenting that the farmer and other patrons had specifically been paid in silver to stem a run. The practice of paying in silver had been used by other Wisconsin banks to discourage people from withdrawing large amounts of their deposits. The Democrat also elaborated a bit more on the activities at the bank during the panic and reported that the bank had stayed open twenty minutes beyond closing on Saturday the 29th to accommodate anyone wishing to make withdrawals. The paper also reported on the large amounts of gold and currency displayed on the counters, and also made the only direct mention of Ringling Brothers’s involvement by stating,
“Large sacks of silver continue to be received by the Bank of Baraboo from Ringling Bros.”
     Charles Ringling actually was in Baraboo at the time of the panic, having arrived around the 27th of July, most likely due to the imminent birth of his daughter. It is possible that Ringling was contacted or heard about the panic and arranged for the deposits of silver. While a full explanation of the Ringling deposits may never be known, it is safe to say that the Bank of Baraboo benefited greatly from its association with the Ringling Brothers Circus over the years and public confidence in the bank was no doubt bolstered by the Ringlings’s involvement.
     During the 1890s the Bank of Baraboo grew with the Ringling circus and the surrounding community, which also received a boost whenever the circus came back to Baraboo for the winter. Thousands of dollars were spent on animal feed, fabric, repairs, new equipment and labor, besides the new buildings that were erected along Water Street for the circus winter quarters. Much of this money went through the bank. By the turn of the century, the Ringling Brothers Circus was a nationally known entity with the Bank of Baraboo as its financial partner.

     Downtown Baraboo, as the prime commercial district of the community, was always a popular gathering spot for the industrious and the not so industrious. While the courthouse square offered many spots to rest, the bank corner was also a popular location for loafers. By 1900 the situation was detracting from the bank’s image in quite a literal sense as loafers leaned on its exterior walls and expectorated on its sidewalk. The bank took steps to correct the problems by removing a drinking fountain it had installed as a public service and by repainting the building. A new cement sidewalk also was laid down. The newspapers tried to help the cause by encouraging the loafers to find a different spot to congregate and encouraging the local police force to help disperse the crowds.
     As the bank approached its fiftieth anniversary, the interior of the bank building also would receive a makeover. In the summer of 1905 a new steam heating plant was installed in plenty of time for the upcoming winter season and Milwaukee architect, Alfred Clas, was called in to plan a remodeling of the first floor. Clas, who had been born and raised in Sauk City, was well known in the community having designed houses in Baraboo for several clients, including Jacob Van Orden and Charles Ringling. Clas was also responsible for the design of the new stone-faced courthouse which was going up that summer in the center of the Square.
     After plans and materials were finally ready, the bank temporarily moved out of the building in mid-November. Old counters and furnishings were moved across the street to 420 Oak Street, while the interior remodeling took place. Business took place as usual except for the fact that clerks had to cross the street to access the safe and vault. The east entrance on Oak Street was closed up, providing for more reception space inside and the old north entrance was protected with handsome and sturdy wrought iron gates. By Christmas of 1905 the newly remodeled interior was ready and the bank moved back into the building. Now, however, marble floors, mahogany woodwork and counters, solid brass teller screens, and other features made for one of the finest interiors in town. Spittoons placed on the floor reminded gentleman patrons to keep the new interior looking its best.
     The bank passed its fiftieth anniversary in 1907 quietly. This was due largely to the fact that at the time the bank signs read, “Established 1873”, the year that the First National Bank of Baraboo bought out the Sauk County Bank. It would be some years later that the bank would start advertising its rightful origin of 1857. In April of 1908, George Mertens, one of the founders of the First National Bank of Baraboo and bank president since 1882, retired. A reorganization then took place and the bank increased its capital stock from $50,000 to $100,000. Baraboo attorney, Herman Grotophorst, was elected president although did not take part in day to day bank matters. Jacob Van Orden, who had been with the bank for 34 years, would remain cashier. Van Orden’s son, Lucas Schuyler, was also now an employee of the bank. L. S. Van Orden had graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1903 and became part of the bank staff soon thereafter. He would eventually become cashier after his father finally assumed presidency of the bank.
     In early 1915 Jacob Van Orden finally became president of the bank he had known since he was 17. Van Orden, who had managed the bank through financial panics, reorganizations and sudden deaths, would also see the bank through the trying times around the first World War. Though bank resources were nearing the two million dollar mark by the time the US entered the war, the local economy would take a serious hit in the fall of 1918 when the remaining Ringling brothers decided not to winter the circus in Baraboo anymore. Post-war layoffs at Baraboo’s two largest mills would also affect the local economy. Despite the slowdowns, Van Orden would oversee the largest expansion of the bank’s facilities to date in the early 1920s.
     In July of 1923 the Baraboo Weekly News reported that the bank would be enlarging its quarters by taking over the adjoining store front to the west as well as the store front to the south. The two fronts were actually part of the same building that had been built in an “L” shape around the bank in 1872. The ground floors of the building would be merged but not without considerable effort. The party wall on the west side of the bank building was actually two 12 inch brick walls next to each other. The solid masonry would have to be supported with steel beams to open up the space. The mahogany counters installed in 1905 were modified and expanded into a "u" shape with windows designated for various banking purposes. The vault would also be enlarged and strengthened. New offices would line the western side of the new space and be lit from above by use of a skylight and light well on the second floor.
     Though the new interior of the bank would mimic the remodeling work done fifteen years earlier, the exterior would be remodeled to suit more modern tastes. The exterior of the original bank building and the old store fronts would be unified with a new façade of stone veneer. While the original building had been designed by prominent Milwaukee architect, E. Townsend Mix, in 1867 the new façade would be designed by prominent Milwaukee architect, Alfred C. Clas.
     To unify the facades, Clas designed a stone veneer with rusticated first floor blocks and shallow pilasters on the second floor in a neo-classical style. The work reflected what Clas had designed for the Sauk County Courthouse just across the street and used the same Bedford limestone. All of the windows remained arched except for those on the second floor of the north façade. Though the stone facing of the north façade was completed by the end of 1923, the east façade would wait until the summer of 1924 to be finished leaving the building caught between the 19th and 20th centuries for a short time. The store building on Oak Street which was taken over by the bank was remodeled for use as a store although the façade matched the bank. Some years later this space would also be taken over by bank operations.
     With the completion of the expansion of the bank, Van Orden’s desire for a modern banking house was finally realized. The building was not invulnerable however. In August of 1926 a woman driving a Buick sedan damaged the new facade when she jumped the curb and ran into the corner of the building knocking loose several pieces of stone. The building was repaired and the legacy of Van Orden’s expansion can still be seen today. Jacob Van Orden would enjoy the enlarged bank building for only a few years before he passed away in November of 1927 having been with the bank for over 53 years. The enlargement and new façade were the crowning achievement of his career.
     During the last few months of his life, Jacob Van Orden was confined to his home and his son, Lucas Schuyler Van Orden, took over operations of the bank and ultimately became president after his father’s death. L. S. Van Orden would preside over the bank during America’s darkest financial hours which began only two years later.


     Despite the hype surrounding the stock market crash of October 1929 the nation’s economic contraction during the early years of the 1930s was the result of many factors. While the stock market crash was part of the beginning of the Great Depression, things went from bad to worse ultimately leading to the bank holidays of March 1933. Through the early 1930s a serious of conditions and events led to widespread runs on the nation’s banks forcing many states to declare a bank “holiday” in 1933. When Wisconsin joined in it was following the lead of 22 other states that had temporarily closed their banks. When the order from the Governor’s office came to suspend operations for two weeks on March 3, 1933, the Bank of Baraboo released a statement by President L. S. Van Orden stating that it intended to comply. Two days later President Franklin D. Roosevelt superceded all state orders and imposed a national banking holiday to stop withdrawals and allow Congress to enact legislation to deal with the banking crisis. The Bank of Baraboo opened again on March 9 but with restrictions imposed on most banks by the Federal Reserve. No withdrawals were allowed and only U.S. government checks could be cashed. The opening did allow people to access their safety deposit boxes and to get change but full operation of any bank would have to wait for approval from the State Commissioner of Banking. Henry J. Steeps, who had taken over the position of cashier after L. S. Van Orden, was elected president, wasted no time in doing what he could to help out the community. The Island Woolen Mill, Sauk County’s largest employer at the time, had suspended operations during the holiday and its payroll of March 6 remained unpaid while the bank was closed. Steeps went to Milwaukee personally to secure scrip issued by a clearing house to pay the mill employees which would release much needed purchasing power in the community. Finally on March 24 the Bank of Baraboo received approval to fully resume operations having been examined and found in good status by the state commissioner. The only restriction placed on the bank was that it could not issue large withdrawals that might be used for hoarding. The bank issued an advertisement of gratitude in the Baraboo News Republic thanking its customers for waiting for the bank to reopen fully.


     The Van Orden years at the bank came to an end in December of 1936 with the death of L. S. Van Orden. Only 55 years old, Van Orden died from complications brought on from being kicked by a horse while on vacation in the southwest. For 62 years a Van Orden had been a part of the bank. Now the reigns passed to others and in 1937 Henry J. Steeps became president. In January of 1938 the bank gave up its state charter and was again organized with a national charter assuming the name, The Baraboo National Bank. Steeps would ride out the remaining years of the Great Depression and would see the largest expansion of Baraboo’s economy shortly after the start of World War II with the construction of the Badger Ordnance Works.
     While the federal government had already been planning for a 10,000 acre munitions plant on the Sauk Prairie before the U.S. entered the war, it was not until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 that work began. Soon every available construction worker was on hand as a work force of 12,000 labored day and night to build the facility. After it opened the work force at the plant would reach 7,500 employees. The Baraboo National Bank became one of the chief depositories for the plant. The bank even opened a temporary mini-bank at the plant which was open Thursdays and Fridays. The building and operation of the Badger Ordnance Works quickly erased any traces of the Great Depression in Baraboo and Sauk County. Though the plant would close after the end of the war it would remain a vital part of the local economy opening again for the Korean War and the Vietnam Conflict.
     At the annual meeting of the stockholders in January of 1953, President Henry J. Steeps was happy to announce that the bank had crossed the $10 million mark. Steeps had resided over a period of tremendous growth in the bank with the bank nearly tripling its resources during his tenure. Unfortunately, Steeps died suddenly in 1955. In December, George A. Weber was elected to the presidency by the Board of Directors. Weber had been with the bank since 1925 working his way up from teller.
     With the tremendous growth during and after World War II the bank was again ready to expand its facilities. In 1956, Weber oversaw the purchase of the Schmalz property to the west of the bank. Construction would wait until after the bank’s centennial though in 1957.


     The bank’s centennial anniversary was celebrated throughout 1957 culminating in an open house on July 1. Somehow the July 1 date had become known as the official anniversary although the bank did not open for operations until July 20th of 1857. The bank featured displays of antiques all through the summer, and souvenir history booklets and key rings were given away to the public. Though the bank’s resources had grown over 100 fold from its inception, the bank facilities had not increased since 1923. In 1958, the bank would again enlarge its quarters by expanding to the west. A large new vault would be built and all vestiges of the late Victorian era interior would be replaced. The building project began in the spring and turned nearly fatal when a foundation ditch collapsed burying one of the workmen. Fortunately, the man was uncovered and treated at St. Mary’s Ringling Hospital.
     The new vault which was located toward the back of the new property to the west was built with 18 thick walls and consumed over two hundred tons of cement and eighteen tons of steel. The old vault door which had been installed probably in the 1923 remodeling was moved to the new vault and is still in use today. The door weighs several tons.
     The north façade of the newly expanded bank was faced to match the 1920s stone work and a new flood lighting system bathed the building in light during the evening hours. In April of 1959, an open house was held to celebrate the enlargement and nearly 5,000 people attended the two day event. With the new space, and by remodeling parts of the basement area, the bank was able to increase its room by fifty percent.
     In 1967, the bank celebrated its 110th anniversary. George A. Weber, cashier of the bank since 1937, became the ninth president. His sixteen year reign showed an increase in deposits from nine million to over seventeen million dollars. Mr. Weber was a native of Baraboo and was influential in many community projects, and in many state-wide activities, both in and out of the banking world. In the ten years from its centennial, the bank’s resources had nearly doubled under President Weber. Weber was president for sixteen years when he died in December of 1970. He had been with the bank for 45 years, ranking as one of its longest employees.
     Robert Kent would be elected president in January of 1971. Kent had started with the bank in 1955 and was Vice President and Trust Officer at the time of Weber’s death. In the early 1970s, the bank expanded its operations with a drive up facility in downtown Baraboo and in 1974, a branch was opened in Rock Springs. Kent’s presidency would be one of the shortest in bank history however due to his sudden death in a car accident in October of 1975.
     In 1975, Merlin Zitzner became the bank’s eleventh president and CEO. He is now the longest serving president and CEO in the bank's history. Zitzner had been a part of the bank since 1972 when he served as Vice-President and Director. During the 1970s “hyperinflation”, high unemployment, and the deregulation of interest rates were challenges to the economy. The Baraboo Bancorporation, which expanded the markets for the bank, was started in 1984 as a holding company including The Baraboo National Bank and its branches and banks in Viroqua and Green Lake. The bank expanded its facilities in 1978;  this time to the south along Oak Street. The northeast corner entrance was also remodeled into two large archways. In 1980, the bank again expanded completing its eastern façade all the way to the alley. A newly remodeled lobby area was also celebrated that year. The east and west sides of Baraboo were more conveniently serviced with the construction of the east side branch in 1987 and a branch in West Baraboo in 1991. The following year, the Lake Delton National Bank opened as a branch and in 1994 the main bank expanded to the west once more adding space for trust services. During the first few years of the 21st Century, the bank opened branches on the southwest side of Baraboo and in Wonewoc, Reedsburg, Portage, Rhinelander and Elcho. With 11 branches, The Baraboo National Bank celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2007. 


     Since 2007, a lot of changes have happened including the return to a State Bank Charter after 80 years as a National Bank and a new name as a result. The Baraboo National Bank officially became Baraboo State Bank on December 22, 2017. With 7 convenient locations in Baraboo, Lake Delton, Portage and Reedsburg, Baraboo State Bank continues to provide honest banking, personalized customer service, local decisions, and commitment to the residents and businesses in the local communities. Baraboo State Bank remains a cornerstone of the Baraboo area since 1857 and is proud to celebrate 165 years in 2022 as the Oldest Bank in Wisconsin.