Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Country Banking In The Thirties

by Norris Chambers

   We didn't have much money, but what we had was in the bank. When Papa heard that the bank was in trouble and people were lining up to get their money out, we made a special trip to town and Papa joined the others in the line. He emerged with a handful of bills and we headed for home. Some were not so lucky. The next day the bank closed, and that was the end of many bank accounts. It would be a long time before we would trust the banks again.

  When we got home, I went with Papa to the cellar and we deposited the money. The depository was a pint fruit jar with the money safely inside and the lid screwed on tight. We dug a shallow hole in the southwest corner and neatly buried the loot. A box of old farm magazines placed over the area concealed the location. When we sold a calf or other farm commodities, the surplus money was deposited in the jar. If we had to make a withdrawal, the jar furnished the cash.

  Cellars were part of just about every homestead in the country. The cellar served several purposes. It was a safe refuge from tornadoes. Some people went to the cellar just about every time it thundered. Others never went. But it was there if it was needed. It was a nice cool place to keep potatoes, or just about any other produce. It served as a storage place for canned meats and fruits. It was warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

  Cellars were built in many different ways. Some were built with concrete walls, floor and top and concrete steps leading up to a well covered door. Some were just holes dug in the ground and covered with logs, then finished off with a mound of dirt concealing the logs. Dirt steps, which soon became a smooth slide, were covered by a plank door sloped downward to shed water. Some of the doors had a rope that was threaded through a pulley on an adjacent post with a heavy rock tied to the opposite end. This counterbalanced the door and made it easy to open. Some sort of simple fastener was ingeniously contrived inside to hold the door shut in case of a tornado. A few cellars were shallow with rock or concrete walls extended above ground to provide head room. This type still required a sloping door with steps, since the above ground part was not tall enough for a regular door.

  One thing all cellars had in common was some sort of air vent. This was usually a joint of galvanized stove pipe mounted in the roof. A coal oil lamp or lantern was standard equipment. An ax was kept handy to cut through the door in case it was held closed by debris after a storm. A few cellars were large enough for a bed, and those who fled from a suspected storm spent the night comfortably. A few chairs were part of the furnishings of such a cellar.

  Another type of banking was available and was considered a safe place to keep money. This was called Postal Savings and was provided by most post offices. These accounts paid interest at the rate of 2%. Any amount of money, no matter how small, could be deposited or withdrawn at will. It was a convenient way to deposit or withdraw funds. The post office was open longer hours than banks, even after the government insured bank accounts up to $100,000 after so many banks were closed.

  We made use of the post office and even a bank in the later thirties. But we still maintained our account with the jar in the cellar. I closed my last post office account when I bought a house in 1947.

  As you might have suspected, Clifton and I were intrigued by the money that people hid in their cellars. We knew of a few old homesteads that had long been abandoned and evidence of a cellar was still visible. We began to wonder if someone might have left their money cache. One particular site was on the lower end of Red Creek, about three or four miles from our regular stomping grounds. We had been there a few times when hunting, and it was hard to tell that there had been a house there. The story was that a family lived there shortly after the Texas revolution, and that the family had been killed or carried away by Indians and the house burned. That would be an ideal cellar to excavate. There was a slight depression in the ground about twenty feet from the foundation rocks that indicated where the house had been.

  Early one Summer morning we gathered up a grubbing hoe and a shovel and rode off on our two favorite mounts, old Aleck and Cougar. Clifton rode Cougar and I rode the old gray one we called Aleck. We soon arrived and began the task. We started digging a hole about four feet in diameter. We figured that would be big enough to get us to the bottom, then we could tunnel outward toward the edges of the cellar.

  The digging was pretty easy, and by noon we had a hole about five feet deep. We found a few rocks and decomposed pieces of wood and nothing else.

  "We must be about deep enough," I reasoned. "We can go down another foot and try digging out toward a wall. There should be some change in the dirt when we get to one side." Clifton was agreeable, so we kept digging until we thought we must be to the bottom. At about six feet we started a tunnel toward the east. When we had dug about three feet straight out, we hit a rock wall. A little more digging revealed a circular wall enclosing what appeared to be six or eight foot circular area. It was constructed of well placed stones, sealed with mortar. We started digging down toward the bottom. Still no sign of a shelf or any other evidence of a cellar.

  We went downward another two feet, and the wall continued down. At about ten feet, there still was no bottom in sight.

  "Sort of strange," Clifton commented. "I never heard of a cellar this deep. Reckon it was a cistern or a well?"

  "It must have been," I agreed. "It couldn't have been a cellar." After a quick executive meeting, we decided to abandon the project. If there had been a cellar, we didn't see any other evidence. We decided to cover the hole up. It was on Mr. Thompson's land, and we thought he might be afraid a calf or other animal would fall in. As tired as we were, we shoveled the dirt back in and with blistered hands rode away from our failed money making project.

  But we had fun looking for a treasure, and that is what it is all about!


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