Vernal, Utah, needed a bank, but the prospect of getting one, back in 1916, was slight . . . until an enterprising young businessman ordered one through the mail!
There was a lot of money being made in the area through ranching, mining and honey production, as well as in the town's stores and saloons. But the nearest banks were days away. The fact that Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch regularly rode through Vernal to and from their favorite hideout, Brown's Hole, only a day's ride from town, caused concern too.But this story of the "postal service bank" starts circa September 1886, when the nearest banks were 120 miles away - a five- to seven-day trek over mere roughed-out roads to Meeker, Colo., in the east, Rock Springs, Wyo., in the north, Price, Utah, in the south, and Heber, Utah, in the west. At this time, however, Samuel Roberts Bennion was sent to Vernal by the president of the Mormon Church to provide a means of money exchange or depository for the pioneers.
Samuel, as the eldest of John and Esther Wainwright Bennion's 17 children, had crossed the plains by wagon train from Nauvoo, Ill., to Great Salt Lake in 1847, seeking his future. Forty years later, here he was in Vernal, organizing the Ashley Valley Cooperative Mercantile Institution, Ashley Co-op for short. As president, he located it on Main Street and associated it with banks in Salt Lake City so money could be lent and invested, as well as safely stored. A large vault was located in one corner of the building. Most of the first farmers and cattlemen and sheepmen started their businesses on money borrowed there.
This Ashley Co-op was the only means of banking in the entire Ashley Valley until 1910. Then, due to the volume of money being deposited, the owners decided a real bank was both needed and profitable as a venture, especially since their present "bank" was extremely vulnerable to robbery.
So, the Co-op owners, along with Samuel R. Bennion, William P. Coltharp and other influential citizens of the community, officially organized the Bank of Vernal. For a year, its business was transacted in the Co-op block on West Main Street, behind a new steel-lined counter, surrounded by a bulletproof screen.
The town continued to grow and prosper. So William H. Coltharp, in 1916, sold the banks' directors on a combination construction plan for a large, new, two-story, all-brick building. It would be built by the Coltharp family and named the Coltharp Mercantile Company, as a memorial to the family patriarch, William P. A bank would be included in the front corner plot.
The architect was a Mr. Mecklenberg from Salt Lake City. Homemade red brick was planned for the interior walls, while textured brick, made by the Pressed Brick Company of Salt Lake City, was to be used to face the entire outside of the structure.
By July, Coltharp was ready to order 80,000 bricks, at seven cents apiece. But the nearest brick kiln was 135 miles away, over very rough roadways - no railroad into Vernal - and wagon freighters demanded 15 cents per brick, or a total of $7,500 for transport.
Things looked bleak, until Coltharp discovered Vernal was in the second postal zone - less than 175 miles from Salt Lake City - and, thus, the bricks could be mailed for only seven cents apiece, less than half what the freighters were asking.
Postal regulations at the time limited the weight of a single parcel to 50 pounds, but there were no restrictions on the number of packages that could be sent. So the bricks were wrapped 10 to a crate, meeting the postal weight requirement, in 5,000 packages.
However, because of the lack of roads and railway between Salt Lake City and Vernal, the mail actually was routed rather round-about, being forced to travel 407 miles - by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to Mack, Colo., then by narrow gauge railway to Watson, Utah, where the track ended, and, finally, to Vernal, 65 miles by wagon over cow trails and steep grades in a Star Route wagon. On this last stretch two wagons traveled in caravan, because it often became necessary to hook both teams to one wagon to get past the roughest spots. If it stormed, the route became even worse, because of the deep mud that formed.
South of Vernal there was also a ferryboat crossing of the Green River. Thus, it took eight days for the round trip just from Watson. Drivers slept out on the hard ground, cooked over campfires, and received the magnificent sum of 85 cents per hundred for hauling the brick.
With this unlikely heavy shipment of parcel post, things began piling up at Mack. The post office there, according to one wag, "was hit like tons of bricks."
Postmaster General Albert S. Burlsoon heard about the problem, in Washington, D.C., when wired by a worried Salt Lake City postmaster, who had, in turn, heard of it when the Star Route carrier - who was required to report all mail not delivered within a week of its arrival - admitted he had mountains of undelivered packages on hand destined for Vernal. Extra wagons were added. William Billman and his son, Horace, along with Johnnie Rasmussen and son, Ralph, with help from the extra freighters assigned, hauled all the bricks, though all ended up with aching backs and impolite words for Coltharp. The mail got through just before the onslaught of winter, which would have stopped the whole operation dead in its tracks.
As a side note, Eddie Young, a short, rather pompous individual, was postmaster at Vernal. Coltharp had gone to him earlier, stating he had "quite a lot" of parcel post expected. He asked if it could be delivered directly to the new bank site. Young quoted postal regulations to him - that ALL mail had to go through the post office, then the person expecting it had to come get it. But several days, and quite a number of brickloads, later, Young was down at the bank begging them to let him unload the bricks there, because the post office was overflowing.
By then, of course, it was too late for the Postmaster General to stop the flood of bricks. Some 30 tons were somewhere enroute, with 10 tons awaiting carriers. But a staff meeting was hurriedly called to rewrite postal regulations, limiting the total weight anyone could send to one person in any one day to 200 pounds.
In 1919, the Bank of Vernal was the first to be admitted to the Federal Reserve System.