Chesterton Tribune

 

 

First State Bank of Porter celebrates 100 years

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By KEVIN NEVERS

It’s easy to forget--as direct deposit and debit cards increasingly put the kibosh on cash--that money used to be nothing but an actual physical thing: currency and coinage kept in wallets and purses, in piggy banks and under mattresses.

Which perhaps is why, when the First State Bank of Porter opened its doors for the first time, on Saturday, Oct. 16, 1920, the Chesterton Tribune devoted a paragraph to the vault itself, which the public had been invited to inspect at an open house a week earlier, to be assured of its robustness: “Its safe is so strong that it can be blown from its seat with nitro-glycerin and yet the doors will respond to the right combination and open perfectly, so strong is the mechanism. The vault has been built into the building and constructed of concrete heavily reinforced with steel bars. The bank, it is said, has the lowest insurance rate available on account of the character of its strong boxes.”

That open house was well attended, according to the Tribune: some 125 visitors toured the new bank building--constructed of brick with an “architecture somewhat on the bungalow type"--presumably checked the soundness of the vault by rapping their knuckles on it, and shook the hand of Cashier C.W. Wright, previously the cashier at the Farmers’ Bank in Kirklin, Ind., 135 miles away, and handpicked to oversee the First State Bank of Porter.

Of particular note, in attendance at that evening’s open house, to welcome their new competition, and possibly to take its measure, were Charles Jeffrey and Edward Morgan, heads of the Chesterton State Bank, which that year was celebrating its own 30th anniversary. If Messrs. Jeffrey and Morgan were content to share the wealth--the Chesterton bank, after all, presented the Porter bank “with a magnificent bouquet of roses,” the Tribune records--they may well have been nonplussed when, not even a year later, in 1921, yet another local banking institution opened, the Chesterton Rural Loan & Savings Institution.

All three banks grew and flourished, as Chesterton and Porter grew and flourished, but a century on only the First State Bank of Porter remains standing, still independent, still privately held, and--since 1963--majority-owned by the Ruge family. This fall--or more precisely, on Oct. 16, 2020--the First State Bank of Porter celebrated its 100th anniversary, and it’s not hard to guess the source of its continuing success. Porter folks have always been proud of their community, they enjoy a deep feeling of belongingness in their neck of the woods, and in 1920 the need to cross the tracks into Chesterton just to do their banking may have rankled some. Certainly it was an inconvenience. A homegrown bank, right in the Downtown, paying 4 percent interest on savings, with a capital stock of $25,000, was as clear a signal as could be sent that the Town of Porter was big enough and wealthy enough to stand on its own two financial feet.

Homegrown indeed. The list of the original 63 stockholders includes “some familiar names to the community still,” President Jackie Ruge-Perkins notes. Names like Carlson, Engberg, Hokanson, Levander, Carlson, Bescherer, Crawford, Huff, Isbey, Nelson, and Peterson. “It points to the fact that there was not a large investor or ‘deep pocket’ or corporation that determined the need and invested in Porter Bank, but many individuals from the community willing to put up a few dollars and invest in what now, 100 years later, still stands testament to the need for a true community bank to serve the residents.”

“From the beginning in 1920, the bank’s philosophy has always been to serve the local community’s needs, as it continues to do today,” Ruge-Perkins adds. “The popular ‘becoming larger’ concept never took hold here, and we’ve never lost sight of our friends.”

The Ruge Family

For more than half of its history, Porter Bank’s story has been weaved into the Ruge family’s story, beginning in the 1940s, when distinguished attorney and civic leader Mox Ruge began buying shares of the bank as they became available. Mox was a midnight oil-burner, for years the local school board’s legal counsel and Porter County’s as well, the kind of guy who never said no when asked to serve, who volunteered his time as though he were being paid for it. Ruge-Perkins is unable to say whether Mox, her grandfather, saw the bank shares as an excellent investment or was simply keen for a second career in banking, but in 1963 his purchase of Herman Kemp’s lot made him majority-owner of the First State Bank of Porter.

He had little time to put his stamp on the institution, though. In 1967, at the age of 59, Mox died suddenly and too soon, leaving his wife, Ann, with the controlling interest. In those unreconstructed days, when Ann would have been known, even or especially in the pages of the Chesterton Tribune, as Mrs. Mox Ruge, some wondered whether a woman had any business in the handscrabble business of banking. But Ann had a plan. She and her son, James--who graduated from IU in 1962 with a degree in business--recruited Dale Strickler, the recently retired president of a North Manchester, Ind., bank, to teach them both advanced banking administration. In the meantime Strickler served as president of the First State Bank of Porter, until in 1970--the bank’s 50th anniversary--James, freshly certified by the Independent Bankers Association, assumed the presidency and truly made Porter Bank the Ruge family legacy.

The pages of the Tribune in October and November 1970 were full of stories, blurbs, photos, and ads all marking Porter Bank’s first half-century. A month’s long open house was held in November at its main branch in Porter, where a collection of artifacts on loan from the Coffee Creek Antique Shop was meant to “dramatize the passage of time,” including a Queen Anne desk, an old lantern clock, and a brass brazier. Visitors could admire the tellers’ “smart new uniforms,” designed by James himself: gold and white double-knits with coordinating scarves of blue and gold. A cocktail party was held one night at the bank, with more than 400 attending. Folks opening a new savings account with $200 or more were presented with a spiffy die-cast coin bank, a replica of one of four “ancient cars” each with “a coin slot tucked neatly underneath": either the 1902 Horseless Carriage, 1910 Stanley Steamer, 1915 Chevrolet Roadster, or 1926 Model T Ford (perhaps the last surviving example of each is currently displayed in a glass case in the president’s office, along with a host of other promotional gifts offered through the years).

A Neighbor Serving Neighbors

The hoopla, however, never detracted or distracted from Porter Bank’s core brand: “Small and Friendly and Long on Service--Completely in tune with fast-paced business world to give you the best in banking with the Personal Touch!” as one ad in the Trib put it in 1970. Already, in the 1960s, the First State Bank of Porter had converted an old post office (or maybe it was a barbershop: the historical record is unclear) into the Pines Branch on U.S. Highway 12, where it became something like the general store of old, “a gathering place for the Town of Pines.” Then, in 1980, the Chesterton Branch was built on the former site of the Open Air Market on North Calumet Road, to make transactions more convenient for its customers on the other side of the tracks.

But the First State Bank of Porter never outgrew its roots. Instead, it grew them only more deeply--and literally--into Duneland’s soil. As Ruge-Perkins notes, in the mid-1980s, under James’ watch, Porter Bank expanded into what has since become its “true speciality: construction lending.” Recall George Bailey’s words as he explains home loans to his customers in It’s a Wonderful Life: “Your money’s in Joe’s house. That’s right next to yours and the Kennedy house and Mrs. Maitlin’s house and a hundred others.” As Duneland grew, Porter Bank provided the mortar needed by folks to sink their foundations into the community, raise their families, and come to be neighbors. “We have financed many, many homes in Porter, Chesterton, Burns Harbor, Valparaiso, and unincorporated Porter County over the past 40 years,” Ruge-Perkins says.

Not surprisingly, the First State Bank of Porter is also a byword for integrity, so much so that numerous municipalities in Northwest Indiana trust it as their depository. “Being responsible for ‘public funds’ requires strong capital and satisfactory examination ratings, which we have always maintained,” Ruge-Perkins says.

Yet most folks are content to think of the First State Park of Porter as the quaint building at the corner of Francis and Lincoln streets, and as Porter’s chief booster and best friend. “We are practically the Welcome Sign for entering Porter from Chesterton,” Ruge-Perkins says. “We are the first business you see ‘coming over the tracks’ and our iconic building style has been purposefully maintained for that reason. I think that many believe and we’re proud that Porter Bank is somewhat synonymous with the Town of Porter. We support and participate in many parades, festivals, charity races, park department events, and fundraisers. We served as trustee for the municipal bond that was issued to build the Porter municipal building. Further, we saved and renovated the cupola from the historic building that was razed. It now sits on our adjacent lot serving as a gazebo for residents and guests. And we offered the land to the town for the Police Department that now sits behind the bank, and we served as trustee for that municipal bond issue too.”

James Ruge served with distinction as president of the First State Bank of Porter for nearly all of its second half-century: from 1970 to 2019, when the Board of Directors tapped his niece, Jackie Ruge-Perkins, to succeed him. Ruge-Perkins has been with the bank since 1986, when she joined the family business at Ann’s urging and with her encouragement. Indeed, Ann assisted Ruge-Perkins with her education and wholeheartedly endorsed her decision to enroll in the highly regarded American Bankers Association’s Graduate School of Banking program.

Now Ruge-Perkins occupies the same office at Francis and Lincoln which Ann made her home away from home for more than 30 years, and is as dedicated as her grandmother was to the principle that what’s best for Porter is best for Porter Bank. “The products and delivery of products and services have changed over the years but our commitment to this community has not--and will not,” Ruge-Perkins says. “We will continue to evolve with technology and more important with our customers’ needs. Even after my 35 years, I feel like I am just getting my stride. Serving as president this year and last has renewed my energy and motivation to ensure Porter Bank stays a pillar of the financial community of Porter County. You can expect to see our traditional, iconic bank building as you enter Porter for many years to come, and hopefully for another 100 years or more."

 

Posted 11/13/2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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