As a kid, Barry Tee always tagged along when his parents stopped in at the Bank of Latah. He knew the tellers would never fail to slip him a piece of Juicy Fruit when they slid his parents’ money across the counter.
Thirty years later, Tee is the bank’s loan officer and marketing director. Among his self-appointed duties is maintaining the stockpile of gum in the bank’s back office.
Things don’t change all that quickly at the Bank of Latah.
The pine desk used by the bank’s first president hints of the bank’s 100-year history; it’s nestled next to a new photocopier. Across the room, a vintage phone rests near a computer where two employees are deep in a discussion on downloading.
Less subtle are the hints of what’s to come.
Outside, a yellow Powershuttle is busy scooping the earth, preparing the building for its first-ever drive-thru. The bank also recently expanded, adding 77 square feet that nearly doubled its size.
“We’re jumping into the ‘60s,” Tee said with a laugh.
The bank may be undergoing a gradual facelift, but it’s still recognized as the hub of this small farming town in the southeast corner of Spokane County. It’s as much a member of the community as anyone, says Tee.
It’s where townspeople have always gathered to talk.
And, occasionally, it’s the talk of the town.
On Sept. 19, an armed masked man entered the bank, demanded money from the tellers, then forced them into the vault. He stopped short of locking them in.
The robber’s abandoned car - stolen from Spokane - was found in Tekoa about a half-hour later. The FBI has no suspects in the robbery.
No one was injured, and the amount of money stolen didn’t amount to much. Mostly, the robbery served as a conversation piece.
Any bank boasting as long a history as this one is bound to have a few heists in its closet. The Bank of Latah is no exception.
The history of the bank itself is somewhat of a legend; the story twists and changes depending on the source. According to Wade Bilbrey, an Idaho historian who spent two years studying the bank’s history, it was first listed in the Spokane District Directory in 1890, with Thaddeus Winter as president.
An 1892 advertisement in the Latah Times, however, lists Bernard O’Neill as the town banker.
Other historical records indicate the bank wasn’t privately organized until 1895, with William McEachran as the founding father.
What is certain, though, is last month’s robbery wasn’t the first.
McEachran’s daughter, Edna, detailed her father’s life in a biography published in the early 1970s.
“For a small bank in a quiet little town, the Bank of Latah had more than its share of burglaries and holdups,” she wrote.
The first robbery, according to Spokane Chronicle records, was on Sept. 23, 1926. Two men walked away with $500 in silver and paper after locking the cashier in the vault.
The bank was robbed again in 1958, 1960 and 1965, each time losing between $400 and $500.
Through all this, and through the Depression that effectively shut down most of downtown Latah, the bank has remained open, closing only for Roosevelt’s bank holiday of 1933.
“Every morning, the town people would look to see if the bank was open,” McEachran wrote. “And every morning it was.”
In the past decade, said Tee, the bank has even expanded, opening branches in Tekoa, Oakesdale, Palouse and St. Maries. Its longevity has earned the town’s trust.
Edna McEachran writes of a farmer, a loyal Bank of Latah customer, coming in to speak with William McEachran during the heart of the Depression. The farmer asked him for his money. McEachran withdrew the money from the vault, and the farmer promptly handed it back.
“I just wanted to see if you had it,” the farmer told him.
“He then went out, and he told the other farmers that Mac was safe,” wrote Edna McEachran.
Today, more than 100 people still entrust their savings to the only bank in town, robberies or not.
“We’ll still take our money to the bank,” said Cindy Colburg, whose business is adjacent to the bank. “Life goes on.”
Colburg and her husband, Bob, own Cindy’s Family Cafe, perhaps the bank’s only rival as a downtown gathering place. It’s the kind of place where people stop by in the middle of the afternoon for a fudge sundae and small talk.
In the days following the robbery, Cindy’s served as gossip central.
“For a couple of days, it was all you heard about,” said Gene Schluter, the town’s postmaster of 16 years. “It’s just something that doesn’t happen around here.”
But within a week, the town welcomed back its trademark quiet. The robbery wasn’t even mentioned at last week’s City Council meeting, said Kelly Crockett, wife of Latah Mayor Chuck Crockett.
“I think people have pretty much quieted down,” she said. “It won’t be remembered very long.”
Things just go on in Latah.
“People like it the way it is,” said Tee.
The population has fluctuated dramatically over the years, topping out near 900 at the turn of the century when a sugar-beet factory kept the town employed.
But when the factory closed, many moved on to bigger cities.
Now, the population has settled into a near-constant 200. The makeup of Latah is changing again, growing increasingly younger and family-oriented as Spokane commuters look to escape the rush of city life. Many residents make the 40-minute commute to work in Spokane every day.
When Tee was growing up, he says, things were different.
“When I was little, you knew everybody,” he said. “If you had a Christmas potluck dinner, everyone in town came.
“Now, the community keeps to themselves more.”
But no matter how many square feet are added on and computers installed, the bank remains a constant, the last Latah pioneer in an evolving community.
“The bank has always been the center of town,” Tee said. “Other businesses have come and gone, but it’s always here.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Deputies patrol under contract By Amy Scribner Staff writer When the Bank of Latah was robbed Sept. 19, it caused quite a stir. “There were more cop cars than we’ve seen in Latah in a long time - probably ever,” said the bank’s marketing director, Barry Tee. Latah may boast a population of a few more than 200, but it’s no Mayberry. The tiny town in southwest Spokane County doesn’t generate enough action to warrant a full-time law enforcement official. Instead, Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies patrol the area under contract. A portion of county property taxes is set aside for law enforcement in the county’s smaller communities. The money is then split up according to how much patrolling an area warrants. Latah contributed $4,342 this year, said Spokane County sheriff’s Lt. Jerry Fojtik. For this fee, the town gets 15 hours a month of patrolling, increased to 20 hours during the more active summer months of June, July and August. This seems to do the trick, said Spokane County Sheriff’s spokesman Dave Reagan. “It’s a pretty quiet town,” he said.