I Robbed Your Bank…Merry Christmas!

(The following is part of a series of articles in celebration of Arenzville’s 175th anniversary.) 

From a letter to the Beardstown paper: “I’m not sure if you remember me or not. I was convicted of bank robbery of the Arenzville National Bank. At present I am doing a 12-year sentence for that crime. I am not a very good writer or typist but there is something I ought to express to you…” The letter from the bank robber goes on to talk about how the education he received in prison had made a new man of him, hopefully leading him toward a career as a medical technician. 

The only recorded robbery of an Arenzville bank took place in 1972 and one of the thieves kept up a correspondence with the bank president, A.C. Hart. Molly Clark Daniel, the daughter of the bank’s head cashier, Robert Clark, said “Later…I think that same year… one of them sent Mr. Hart a Christmas card. I remember Dad coming home telling us about it, incredulous that he’d do such a thing.” The bank still has the card in its records: “Mr. Hart, Hope this year has been good for you and the next year is even more successful. I never got a chance to tell you I was sorry. At the present time I’m on my way to Springfield, Missouri, to attend medical school, which is a 2-½ year course. Maybe if you don’t mind I’ll stop and say hello upon my release. Happy New Year! To all in your office the same. Sincerely, (and he signed his name.)”  

Arenzville has always been known as a town where folks made friends easily, but this may be the first time that graciousness included those who robbed our bank. 

Chad Phelps was a kindergarten student at Trinity Lutheran on the day of the heist. He said, “Me and my buddy Roger Smith were teeter-tottering out back of the school and we saw this really cool car pull up the alley.” Alleys aren’t used much in Arenzville so this naturally caught the two young boys’ attention. “We didn’t care anything about bank robbers,” said Phelps. “We were just interested in that hot rod!” The hold-up crew was a three-man team. One popped the hood of the car and pretended to work on the engine while the other two took off toward the bank. “I was at home after school when my dad came in,” said Phelps, “and said, ‘There’s two guys here from the FBI and they want to talk to you.’” The agents handed the five-year-old a three-ring binder full of pictures and the youngster quickly picked out the faces of the two bank robbers. “Dad says I even gave them the license plate number,” said Phelps. The criminals had already been nabbed, but young Phelps’ testimony slammed the hood shut on the case. “It’s been kind of nice over the years,” he said, “telling people that I was the one who solved the Arenzville bank robbery.” 

June Houston, an employee at First National for 47 years, was the lady behind the counter when the thieves entered the bank. “I was looking at a double-barreled sawed off shotgun and the guy’s finger was twitching. He was nervous.” As it happened, Mrs. Houston had recently attended a seminar on how to behave during bank robberies. “They told us to keep quiet and observe everything we could,” she said. “They told Mr. Hart, the president, to put all the money in a pillowcase.” Many banks, at least in those days, had a stash of specially dusted bills on hand to make the tracking easier. The bank president threw those in the sack. Houston said that her sleep is still sometimes disturbed by the vision of that shotgun in her face. The guy said, “Don’t move! Don’t move, M’am!” The three men collected approximately $3000 and headed south, tossing their shotgun in the town creek as they sped toward Jacksonville. The gun landed barrel down in the mud and discharged, blowing the end out of the gun. Mr. Hart asked the FBI for the gun but the G-men weren’t big on handing out souvenirs. 

It’s the unlucky bank robber who sticks his gun into the face of a teller who happens to be the town’s most accomplished artist. Mrs. Houston was able to draw a sketch of the ski mask, the black glasses, and even pinpointed a dimple in the man’s chin. After stopping in Concord to buy a candy bar and hear the news coming in from Arenzville about their own crime, the thieves took off for Jacksonville where they were arrested on West State. 

Don Wessler happened to be in the boardroom of the bank on that Monday morning, counting the money from Trinity Lutheran’s Sunday offering with Eileen Dannewitz. Don said, “I noticed that something strange was going on. I turned to Eileen and said, ‘Don’t look up now, but I think we’re being robbed.’” 

But perhaps the wildest story of the Great Bank Robbery of ’72 comes from local resident Gary Beard: “Me and Mike Beets were building a Morton shed north of Triopia for Tim Huey. Tim came out to see us before dinner and had an old ’64 station wagon. We were way behind on the job and he was chewin’ on us and chewin’ on us.” Beard said that it made the two boys mad so he just walked away from the job. “Then,” said Beard, “I saw this six-foot marijuana plant growing there so I went over and hauled that thing out and while Beets was talking to him on the other side of the car, I went up the other side and tied it to the top of his car.” Huey returned to his lumber mill in Arenzville, unaware of the illegal plant decorating the top of his station wagon. When he reached the mill one of his employees shouted that the bank had just been robbed. By then, according to Beard, there were perhaps a half dozen FBI agents at the bank. “So there was Tim, driving real slow around the agents with that marijuana plant tied to the top of his car. I guess the FBI had bigger fish to fry that day because they didn’t see it, but when Tim went back to his office and saw the plant, he went ballistic. He went back out to where we were and said he was gonna fire us both. We started looking for a way out of that.” 

The town’s first bank was built in 1882 and called The Peoples Bank, run by two gentlemen by the name of Condit and Saylor. In 1889 Condit was replaced by the Engelbach name and thus began the lineage that exists today as his descendants still sit on the board of directors. Arenzville’s First National Bank built a new building in 1957 and the current structure in 1996. Kai Schnitker, a former Arenzville resident, is president of the current bank, which has facilities on both South Main and West Morton Avenue in Jacksonville. 

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About the author

Ken Bradbury is an adjunct instructor of theatre at LLLC after retiring from Triopia. He entertains on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat and is the author of over 300 published plays. Website: creativeideas.com

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