Abandoned bank in Oregon

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon
Date added: March 17, 2023 Categories: Oregon Commercial Bank
View from SE of Front and South Elevations (1991)

Many features of the immediate environment surrounding the Monroe State Bank Building offer clues to its historic context. The building stands on the site of Adam Wilhelm's first store and fronts Highway 99 West, a vestige of the Applegate Trail of 1846 which introduced immigrants to the region. Beyond the highway, the waters of the Long Tom River flow over a concrete drop dam which provided power for the Monroe Roller Mill and electricity for the town. The surviving mill building, constructed in 1896, dominates the view from the former bank lobby. Flanking the property is Wilhelm's immense Queen Anne Style home built in 1905 and a house, built in 1882, which was converted into a hotel when a railroad connection for Monroe appeared imminent.

David and Joseph White first took advantage of the availability of water power on the Long Tom River by damming the stream and erecting a sawmill in 1853. The resulting settlement of mill employees prompted the post office and store at Starr's Point, two miles to the north, to move to the new hub of activity.

The town of Monroe was platted in 1857, but faced stagnation when the local timber supply was exhausted. The economy was revitalized when the Foster flour mill, originally built on Beaver Creek in 1854, was dismantled and moved to the sawmill site. The grist mill was capable of grinding only five bushels of wheat per hour, but the productivity was greatly increased when it was acquired by Thomas Reader. By 1866, Reader had invested 8,000 dollars to enlarge the buildings and add new machinery enabling the mill to process 45 bushels of wheat per hour. The quality of the flour rivaled the best brands in Oregon. The Corvallis Gazette described the operation April 25, 1868:

The flour mill of Thomas Reader is supplied with a granary capable of holding fifteen thousand bushels of grain, which is taken from the wagons by machinery, from which time there is no trouble to the miller. The wheat is ingeniously conveyed to the top of the mill and put through an improved suction fan and cleaner, and by the time it arrives at the hopper it is free from every impurity. There are three run of splendid burrs, which are capable of turning out two hundred and forty bushels of the best flour in twenty-four hours. The mill stands on a good foundation of solid rock, has splendid water power, and the establishment commands a large and good district of farming country.

The mill was sold at auction in 1882 while the nation was experiencing a recession. Monroe might not have weathered the downturn without the arrival of Adam Wilhelm.

Wilhelm was born in Germany the 10th of December, 1846. His parents emigrated to the United States when he was two years old and eventually settled in Wisconsin. He married in 1867 and fathered nine children. Wilhelm visited Oregon briefly in 1872, then returned to Wisconsin to collect his family.

He returned to Oregon the following year to settle permanently in the Willamette Valley. In an interview on June 3, 1914, with Fred Lockley, feature writer for the Portland Oregon Journal, Wilhelm described his first investment:

I heard that old man Landerking at Monroe had a little grocery store and saloon he wanted to sell. I went to see it and bought it for $800 and I put a lot of my money in land at $22 an acre. A year later I bought 360 acres more. I paid the same price, $25 an acre, as they asked for the land in Sunnyside, East Portland, only the land at Monroe was already cleared while the land in Portland was all covered with big stumps or big trees.

Wilhelm's holdings at Monroe would eventually encompass 4,000 acres of farmland. He tended prune orchards and operated a fruit dryer. He expanded his store, "Wilhelm & Sons", until it was considered the largest in the Willamette Valley outside of Portland. He built a community dance hall and helped establish the Saint Rose of Lima Catholic church. He donated land for the cemetery where his parents are buried. With the exception of nine houses, Wilhelm owned all of the property in Monroe, including the grist mill. He related the unusual circumstances surrounding its acquisition in his interview with Fred Lockley:

I raised wheat and the money I made I loaned at 12%. I loaned $12,000 to the grist mill at Monroe. The mortgage came due but the owner would not even pay the interest, so I foreclosed and that night the mill was set afire and I lost my $12,000. I have learned this: The surest way to make a man your enemy is to accommodate him. If you loan a friend your money you lose your friend and your money. Very few men will forgive you for doing them a favor. Few men will. forgive those they injure. When a man does a mean thing to you, he hates you, for he must justify his own injustice.

In 1890, an Englishman by the name of Guy Laws started the construction of a steam-powered grist mill about two miles north of Monroe to fill the void left by the destruction of the Monroe mill. Wilhelm felt threatened by the development and immediately began rebuilding. He succeeded in completing his mill first and attracted the first harvest of wheat. Laws' mill failed and was purchased by Wilhelm, who moved it to Harrisburg. Wilhelm also owned a grist mill in Junction City and processed much of the wheat grown in Benton County.

The Long Tom River provided Wilhelm with an efficient source of power to operate his roller mill, but fell short as a means for transporting his wheat and flour. In addition to natural obstacles, two bridges barred traffic on the stream. Oregon Congressman W. C. Hawley secured a federal appropriation of $3,000 to improve the Long Tom's navigability. Bundy's Bridge was replaced with a drawbridge and Pfout's Bridge with a ferry. Steamboats were generally confined to the Willamette River, but the 95-ton sternwheeler Gypsy made three trips to the roller mill during the spring freshets of 1900. Her final voyage, in March, nearly resulted in the Long Tom's only shipwreck. As the Gypsy was turning in the channel to leave the mill, her bow caught on the rocks below the dam. She was pulled free, but never returned.

The navigability of the Long Tom insured competitive rates for shipping large quantities of produce by rail via a branch line of the Corvallis & Alsea River Railway Company which reached Monroe in 1908. B.W. Johnson, a Corvallis businessman, established the Oregon Apple Company (OACO) the following year. The company purchased several hundred acres of land near Monroe which they planted in apples and subdivided into tracts of about ten acres each. Cleve Currin, one of' Johnson's associates, prepared brochures advertising the possibility of retiring from the income realized from ownership of one of the tracts. Other orchard tracts were platted at the neighboring town of Alpine while an eastern company was offering land south of Monroe for settlement. Talk of extending the railroad south to Eugene further enhanced Monroe's potential.

Monroe's prosperity led Adam Wilhelm, and other influential farmers of southeast Benton County, to discuss the need for a bank. The trip to Corvallis or Junction City was strenuous for minor monetary transactions. Wilhelm offered the site of his first store as the location for the bank, and set his son, Matthew, to work on the project. A bank would lend respectability to the community and represent the ultimate success of Wilhelm's various business ventures. He had earned the reputation of being a shrewd businessman who could sell anything--even second-hand coffins!

The Monroe State Bank Corporation was formed September 24, 1910, by B. W. Holman, an experienced banking man from Puyallap, Washington; Edward Bennett, a local physician; and Matthew Wilhelm, Adam's son. The company was capitalized at $10,000, though the issue could have been subscribed several times over, and 100 shares of stock were offered. Among the influential men of the county who purchased shares were: M. L. Barnett, Monroe Childers, L. N. Edwards, J. R. Furnbow, J. M. Herron, L. A. Houck, R. J. Nichols, J. J. Richards, J. J. Winn, V. M. Woodcock, and Albert and Casper Zierolf. The stockholders elected officers at a meeting held October 8, 1910. Holman was appointed Cashier; H. C. Herron, President; and Adam Wilhelm, Sr., Vice President. Dr. Bennett and Matthew Wilhelm were placed on the Board of Directors as were D. B. Farley, R. S. Irwin, and B. W. Holeman.

Plans for the construction of a corporate headquarters were announced in the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper for October 14, 1910:

An order has been placed for one of the best Manganese safes and it is the intention to erect a two-story concrete building 25 x 60 feet on the site of the old Workman building. The upper floor will be used for a lodge hall. The promoters of the bank expect to have it in successful operation by the first of the year.

Few details of the construction work are known. The gravel for the concrete was reportedly collected from the Long Tom River. Horses hitched to pulleys were used to raise concrete to the second floor. A 1928 Sanborn fire insurance map indicates that the concrete was "reinforced," but no building specifications have come to light.

The bank's "Grand Opening" was reported by the Gazette-Times on February 10, 1911:

B. W. Holman, of Monroe, was in Corvallis Saturday making the final arrangements incident to opening the Monroe State Bank today. The building erected for bank purposes is practically finished, the fire and burglar-proof safe has arrived, and necessary furniture is installed. It will be some time before all is in the perfect condition desired, but these details need not interfere with the successful transaction of business.

The surge of optimism generated by the orchard tracts fueled growth in Monroe and neighboring Alpine. Within one year, the bank was doing a $50,000 business. When the Monroe Leader, a newspaper published by Bennett Wilhelm, enumerated the town's assets, the new bank headed the list. Only the townspeople were considered of greater importance. "Monroe has 100 people," he wrote, "a bank, the largest department store in Benton County, one of the most costly and attractive houses in the county, the county's largest flouring mill, two churches, and a railroad coming, six orchard companies, a sawmill of 50,000 square feet, two hotels, liveries and a machine shop."

The railroad connection to Eugene appeared imminent in 1911. The Corvallis & Alsea River Railway Company was purchased by Alvadore Welch with the intention of establishing an electric line between Portland and San Francisco. The Portland, Eugene & Eastern Railway was formed and construction of the line from Eugene north to Monroe was begun. Southern Pacific acquired Welch's interest the following year and a depot was built at Monroe. In 1914, the connection was completed offering the orchard tracts an even more efficient means for shipping their produce. Monroe incorporated the same year, and apple packing plants in Monroe and Alpine were put into full operation.

The bubble burst in 1923. The Oregon Apple Company had projected a yield of half a million boxes, but only managed to ship 75,000. The orchards had been slow in coming into production and the soil above the flood plain had proven less rich than anticipated. The trees were difficult and expensive to maintain without the additional burden of expensive applications of fertilizer. Reluctant to invest further, particularly when the price of apples fell to 25 cents a box, the owners and stockholders abandoned the enterprise. Many allowed their orchard tracts to go to the county for taxes. Some were fortunate enough to sell their land to farmers who removed the orchards and returned to farming or raising livestock. Alpine was devastated by fire the following year. Monroe had seen its heyday and began to decline. Adam Wilhelm spent his final years living in the Osborne Hotel in Eugene and died in 1928.

The Monroe State Bank Corporation weathered the Great Depression. In 1952 it changed its name to First Monroe Bank. Two years later, the tiny concern was absorbed by the First National Bank of Portland. The building was eventually vacated in favor of a modern single-story building constructed a block to the north. The Monroe State Bank Building has since housed a hardware store and a second-hand store, but is now vacant while awaiting restoration.

Building Description

The Monroe State Bank Building, headquarters for the only financial institution established in southeast Benton County, Oregon, opened for business February 10, 1911. The two-story reinforced concrete building continues to dominate the business district of Monroe on its original site at the corner of South Fifth and Commercial Streets. Although the interior has been extensively remodeled, the historical integrity of the exterior remains largely intact. The incised stucco finish, the decorative parapet, and the style and placement of doors and windows, with the exception of a scaled-down stairwell entrance, all conform to the original design, materials, and workmanship. A woodshed formerly attached to the rear of the building is no longer present. The building's architect and contractor are not yet known. The property is currently vacant pending restoration, but a feeling of association with its original function remains strong in the community.

The Monroe State Bank Building occupies the northwest corner of the intersection of South Fifth and Commercial Streets on Tax Lot 3600 on Lot 4 of Block 5 of the Original Town of Monroe, Benton County, Oregon, in the NW ¼ of the NE ¼ of Section 33 of Township 14 South, Range 5 West of the Willamette Meridian. The two-story building is rectangular in plan with its front elevation, measuring 26 feet nine inches, oriented north/south along South Fifth Street and its south elevation, measuring 42 feet, oriented east/west along Commercial Street. The building is located in the business district of Monroe and is bordered by sidewalks with no landscaped features.

The building rests on a concrete slab poured at street level and consequently has no basement. The walls are of reinforced cast-in-place concrete. The front (east), south, and rear (west) elevations are covered with stucco incised to simulate concrete block construction. The building is detached, but the north elevation was intended to abut against a building of similar stature. The exposed concrete of the north elevation reveals that form boards approximately one foot wide were utilized during construction. The roof, wood decking supported by wooden joists and covered with rolled composition asphalt, is gently pitched toward the rear of the building.

Two entrances access the building from street level: the main entrance centered on the front elevation (190 S. 5th St.) and the stairwell entrance located near the rear of the building on the south elevation (515 Commercial St.). These doorways were historically identical. Each contained a four by eight foot door and an overhead transom that could be opened for ventilation. The original doors were primarily glass. The stairwell entrance has been altered to facilitate a smaller door with no transom. The front door has been replaced with one containing less glass, but the transom, and the overall configuration of the main entrance, has been preserved.

There are four large fixed-pane windows on the ground floor, each with a horizontal muntin defining the top third which is itself divided vertically into four lights of translucent glass. Two of these windows are located symmetrically on the front elevation, one on each side of the main entrance, and two on the south elevation. The windows of the south elevation are one foot greater in width. A small fixed-pane window is located on the ground floor of the rear elevation below the second floor landing. The windows of the second floor are all one-over-one double-hung sash. One is located on the rear elevation at the second floor landing, three are distributed symmetrically on the south elevation, and three are distributed asymmetrically on the front elevation.

The building's most striking decorative element is a denticulated parapet wall crowning the front and south elevations. On the south elevation, forty-two dentils run horizontally beneath a band which caps the parapet. On the front elevation, ten dentils appear on each side of the date "1911" and the word "BANK" which are centered above the main entrance. The parapet rises slightly to allow space for the characters. Other decorative elements of the front and south elevations include a horizontal band capping the second floor windows and a ledge demarcating the first and second floors.

The original interior spatial organization of the ground floor consisted of the bank lobby, a concrete vault, a workroom, and a short hallway which provided access to a closet beneath the stairs, a bathroom, and a woodshed attached to the rear of the building. No interior doorway existed between the workroom and stairwell. The ceiling height was twelve feet throughout. A number of alterations have been made to this plan over the past forty years. A seven foot high partition wall between the lobby and workroom was extended to the ceiling. The ceiling over the workroom was then lowered to eight feet to facilitate the installation of an oil furnace. The obsolete woodshed was razed, the exterior door sealed, and the end of the hallway converted to a closet. The closet beneath the stairs was remodeled into a bathroom while the original bathroom was cleared of fixtures. A doorway was created between the workroom and stairwell. The lobby walls were furred out concealing the original window casings and baseboards. Projecting cornices, stools, and picture molding were cut back or removed. An acoustic tile ceiling and banks of fluorescent light fixtures were suspended one foot beneath the original lobby ceiling. The front door was replaced and the vault door and banking fixtures removed.

The second floor was to serve as a meeting hall for a fraternal organization, but further research may establish that these plans were abandoned prior to construction and that the space was instead designed and utilized exclusively as a dwelling. The original twelve-foot ceilings have been lowered to eight feet throughout, all walls have been covered with gypsum board, and modern double-glazed windows have been installed behind the original one-over-one double-hung sash. A particle board underlayment conceals the original floors. An inspection of the enlarged attic space has provided insight into the original spatial organization of the stairwell and apartment, and the discovery of historic wall and ceiling finishes, window casings, and picture molding suggest that once the remodeled features are removed ample evidence will be found to permit an accurate restoration.

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from SE of Front and South Elevations (1991)
View from SE of Front and South Elevations (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from SE of Front and South Elevations (1991)
View from SE of Front and South Elevations (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from E of Front Elevation (1991)
View from E of Front Elevation (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from S of South Elevation (1991)
View from S of South Elevation (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from W of Rear Elevation (1991)
View from W of Rear Elevation (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from NE of Front and North Elevations (1991)
View from NE of Front and North Elevations (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from SE of Roof (1912)
View from SE of Roof (1912)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from SE of Front and South Elevations (1912)
View from SE of Front and South Elevations (1912)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from SW of Rear and South Elevations (1912)
View from SW of Rear and South Elevations (1912)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View from S of Front and South Elevations (1940)
View from S of Front and South Elevations (1940)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View of Lobby, Front Wall (1991)
View of Lobby, Front Wall (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View of Lobby, South Wall (1991)
View of Lobby, South Wall (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View of Lobby, North Wall (1991)
View of Lobby, North Wall (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View of Lobby, West Wall (1991)
View of Lobby, West Wall (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View of Workroom (1991)
View of Workroom (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View of Stairwell (1991)
View of Stairwell (1991)

Monroe State Bank Building, Monroe Oregon View of Lobby, Sumner Turner at Cashier Window (1920)
View of Lobby, Sumner Turner at Cashier Window (1920)