Are Old West Bankers and Today’s Bankers Different?
Today, when I think of banks and bankers, I think of Wall Street, my home mortgage, and the banker that I used to deal with on a frequent basis to retain a line of credit for my dad’s business, Big Sky Horse Leasing. I have to say that Bankers of the old west don’t come right to my mind, but maybe they should.
I always have rather high anxiety when meeting with a banker. They really hold the cards for what it is that I want to do. If I want to build a house and need a construction loan, I have to get a banker to approve the loan. If I want to buy a car and don’t have the money to pay cash for it, I need a banker for that too.
In the last several years people have lost their homes to bankers and had extremely stressful experiences all over America, but I have heard stories of bankers in the old west that truly put the fear in the word, “Banker”!
George P. Diehl and the Goose Ranch
In Townsend Montana, back in the 1920’s there was a man named George P. Diehl who was an extremely hard worker and had a cattle ranch in the valley that is now covered by the Canyon Ferry Reservoir. He went to work on a Ranch that was called the Old Goose Ranch.
After working there for a number of years, he was able to put together enough money to put a down payment on the place when it came up for sale. He financed the rest through the bank and went to work to build his dream.
One of the major differences between bankers at that time, sometime around 1920, and bankers now, is that back then bankers wanted to own property.
One of the major differences between bankers at that time, sometime around 1920, and bankers now, is that back then bankers wanted to own property. In today’s world, banks and by extension bankers deal in cash, they really don’t want to deal with property, but that was not the case in those days.
For a reason known only to the banker in question, they decided to call in the loan on the Goose
Ranch in full. George was caught by surprise, but came up with a plan. He contacted a cattle buyer and offered him all of his cattle. This would have taken one half of George’s ability to make income from the land, but as the alternative was losing the whole place, he knew he had no choice.
George made a deal with the cattle buyer and set a date for the buyer to come out to the ranch and make the payment and take possession of the cattle. The day arrived and the cattle buyer was late. While they were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the cattle buyer, the banker showed up to take possession of the ranch as the payment had obviously not been made.
George told him the situation and asked him to wait until the cattle buyer got there and he would be paid. The banker would not wait and declared the place repossessed on the spot, telling George that he would have to leave the property. The cattle buyer arrived one half hour later, but it was no use. The place had been lost and George never trusted a bank to hold his money until the day he died.
The Fist of Cockie Spear
Another man that had bankers TRY to take advantage of him was a man named Cockie Spear. Cockie, as he was known and no one that I talked to could remember his real name, was in the banker’s office one day when the banker, a Mr. Norman, told him that he was calling in the farmer’s bank note in full. Cockie just looked at him steadily and asked to see the note.
When the banker brought the note out of a drawer to show him, Cockie dove headlong over the desk, punched the banker in the face a terrible blow, and ripped the note out of his hand. I have no idea how this interaction ended accept that Mr. Norman did NOT call in the note, maybe because Cockie walked out of there with it or maybe for some other reason not known to me.
One thing I do know is that if anyone dove over a desk and did that to a banker today, it would not go well with him. In those days, things were different. There were no electronic copies of documents, people weren’t able to sue you for punching them in the face like they can today and most likely the banker knew that what he was doing was unethical or illegal and understood that he had come across someone who would not stand for it.
If anyone dove over a desk and did that to a banker today, it would not go well with him.
That wasn’t Cockie’s only run in with this banker. Somehow, Cockie got wind of the fact that the banker was going to come and confiscate all of his hard earned wheat crop that he was storing in his granaries, probably waiting for the best price before hauling it to the elevator to sell. The night before the banker was supposed to be there, Cockie loaded all of his grain in grain trucks and hauled it to an elevator in Ledger, Montana in the middle of the night. This was a great feat in those days as the trucks in the 1920’s held very little grain and did not go very fast either, maybe 30 or 40 miles per hour when they were empty and going down a steep hill.
Just to give you another tidbit to think about, in those days every bit of that grain had to be shovelled into those trucks and probably shovelled back out too. That was quite a night!
When morning came and the banker showed up with his own trucks to take possession of the wheat, the granaries were completely empty. Cockie just scratched his head and told him, “Well, I can’t believe it! It was all here yesterday!” To my knowledge, the banker never did find out what had happened to that grain, though he almost certainly knew that Cockie had done something with it.
I tend to root for the little guy and always enjoy hearing stories about someone like Cockie, who stood up for himself and didn’t let the bankers run over the top of him and do unethical, albeit legal, business.
Not very many of the stories from those days are as rosy however. Many a farmer or early rancher ended up just like George Diehl and lost everything. No story of this has hit home so hard as the story of a young dutch family that lived in the same area as Cockie Spear, the Van Dykes.
No story of this has hit home so hard as the story of a young dutch family that lived in the same area as Cockie Spear, the Van Dykes.
The Sad Story of the Van Dykes
Both John (Johannes) and Gertie (Griffioen) Van Dyke had come over from the Netherlands for the promise of free land available in the western United States. They had come separately, each coming for the same reason but not knowing each other until they met in the american west and married in 1915. They were from completely different backgrounds and perhaps where they came from and their backgrounds contributed in a way to what happened.
John was from an extremely poor farming family and Gertie was from a very wealthy family, her father having owned several cargo ships. Being from the Netherlands and coming from such a poor stature, John did not realize the you could question such an authority as the bank. He spoke very broken english and probably did not understand the laws very well either.
After being completely driven off a farm that they rented by the terrible drought of the early 1920’s, they left Montana, but came back and bought a farm of their own a year or two later. This was finally the realization of the dreams they had chased when they left their homeland and they were filled with new hope and passion for life.
After purchasing the farm, the banker who had sold it to them, a Mr. Norman, (yes the same one) encouraged them to build a bigger home and he would loan them the money. John was very grateful for the offer and went to work immediately.
As soon as the home was finished, the banker demanded payment in full! (Sound familiar?) In the contract, he had left a clause that he could do this at any time and he rightly guessed that the family of trusting dutch emigrates would not catch it.
Of course the Van Dykes could not pay and were forced to sell all of their livestock and move off of the property. They had to give all of the proceeds from the sale of their cattle to the bank and ended up with absolutely nothing!
Sometimes I hear someone say they had nothing, but in this case, it was absolutely true. John and Gertie Van Dyke left that farm with 10 children in tow, in an old Chrysler car that had no brakes. Gertie was expecting their 11th child and they had nowhere to go.
I have no idea where the large family slept or cooked or ate, but I am sure that it wasn’t pretty. Church members of the little Christian Reform Church did what they could, but they were very poor themselves.
A very good hearted gentlemen named Flagg, heard about the Van Dyke’s hardship and offered an old shack on a piece of property that he owned for them to live in. This is where the family saw the hardest times that they had ever endured. The shack had one small room and a lean-to porch with no roof. There was barely enough room in that shack for all of them to sit on the floor in the main room, so the cooking had to be done out on the uncovered porch. Gertie’s children distinctly remember her sobbing while she cooked and saying that she never thought she would have to cook for her kids without a roof!
Gertie’s children distinctly remember her sobbing while she cooked and saying that she never thought she would have to cook for her kids without a roof!
Sleeping arrangements were very difficult. A couple of the younger ones would sleep on the floor, the rest of the boys would sleep in the “attic” which was accessed by a ladder and a random hole knocked in the ceiling. When the boys had climbed up the ladder, it was removed and placed outside, because there was no room for it in the house. God knows what would have happened had there been a fire!
Three of the girls slept in the Chrysler car and the rest slept with the chickens in the chicken coop! This was how they lived for about a year until John built a shed and covered it with black tar paper for the kids to sleep in.
The building of the shed came after the boys were moved to the barn, because of the fire concern, and the horse had crapped in their bed.
This little building came to be called the black shack. As it did not have any heat and the temperatures in Montana during the winter get down to well below zero, you can imagine the conditions endured by those brave little kids!
The Van Dykes spent about 3 years at this property and only because of the kindness of the farmer, Mr Flagg, were able to grow beets in a field they didn’t own and make enough money to finally get another place. It was a piece of ground that was full of rocks, had never been worked and the house started as an old wooden granary that was built to store grain in, but it was the beginning of starting over. Much better at any rate than what they had endured because of the greed and downright evil of that crooked banker.
For all that bankers scheming and plotting, he ended up with nothing. He died in the state of Washington without a penny or a friend to his name. I am sure the atrocities that he committed, including the horrible life that he inflicted on the Van Dykes, haunted him in his old age. I doubt it was worth it!
So when you go see your local banker for that new car or house, you can thank God that times have changed. Or have they?