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A hefty dose of the Wild West

Summer tours of the Beekman Bank include scales that weighed both gold and babies
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Diane Wallace shows how gold was weighed at Beekman Bank in downtown Jacksonville.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Beekman Bank in downtown Jacksonville.

A small building in downtown Jacksonville offers a trip back to a world far removed from today’s online banking and financial services “apps.”

The historical Beekman Bank in downtown Jacksonville offers a glimpse of 19th century banking, which will be a highlight of a summer tour series scheduled to run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 4.

Far more colorful than typical banking topics such as savings and loans, banking tales from the oldest remaining financial institution between San Francisco and Portland will run the gamut from townsfolk weighing their babies on the gold scales inside the Beekman Bank to the tiny wooden structure doubling as everything from an art gallery to a “hitchin’ post” of sorts.

Carolyn Kingsnorth, president of Historic Jacksonville Inc., said the history of the Beekman Bank comes with a hefty dose of Wild West.

Cornelius Beekman opened a tiny gold dust office kitty-corner to the existing Beekman Bank in 1857, moving to the existing “newer” location in 1863 when he became a Wells Fargo agent.

“Before that, there were a lot of, sort of, local express companies. Beekman had one or two routes that he ran. He was, at one time, riding the Siskiyous twice a week, carrying newspapers, gold and mail,” Kingsnorth noted.

“When he became a Wells Fargo agent, he became one of the big guys. Wells Fargo actually bought his business, as opposed to him being offered to be employed. So he sold his express company AND he got a job.”

Gold scales inside the bank, Kingsnorth noted, weighed most of the babies born in late-1800s Jacksonville. Early clerks would keep the bank open from “early to late,” often sleeping at the bank in case they were needed.

Henry Dox, Beekman Bank clerk from 1905 until it closed in 1912, was a justice of the peace who even performed weddings inside the bank between 1910 and 1912. Dox also saved the bank from at least one of the many devastating fires in the town’s history.

A nod to modern day safety deposit boxes and savings accounts, Beekman and clerks would weigh gold deposits delivered in bags, called “pokes,” and record the value on a tag attached to the bags.

“Like they say, a ‘pig in a poke,’ they were made of suede or cowhide or maybe denim. He would weigh it and assign value and put it back in the bag in the safe,” Kingsnorth said.

“When you needed money, you came in, and he took out your poke and took out whatever money you wanted, and the bag was put back in. If you needed a loan, he lent his own money, and it was a handshake deal.”

By some accounts, Kingsnorth said, Beekman Bank saw more than $40 million in gold cross its counters in Jacksonville’s late-1800s heyday — the equivalent of over $1 billion today.

When Beekman tried to close the bank in 1912, a handful of customers forbade his exit as their favorite banker.

“So he did business with some of his old customers until his death in 1915,” Kingsnorth added. “His son, Ben, was his executor, and there are stories about him spending a great deal of time trying to find people whose money was still in the safe.”

Upon his death, Beekman decreed his bank would become a museum, with stories to be shared as he’d often done during his long hours at the bank.

Kingsnorth promised tours will include tales of early Southern Oregon and some of the more colorful happenings at the oldest bank in the Pacific Northwest.

Beekman Bank is located at 110 W. California St. Tours are free, but donations, used toward preservation and maintenance of the bank, are encouraged.

For additional information, including about other historical locations around Jacksonville, call 541-245-3650 or see historicjacksonville.org/behind-the-counter-tours

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.