Sometimes, on the High Plains of Eastern Colorado, it’s easy to forget that the first day of spring falls in the month of March. Anyone familiar with the region understands why this is so. It’s during March that the biggest winter storms have, on occasion, landed like a sledgehammer on the broad expanse of prairie, testing the most optimistic heart that yearns for the beauty of spring, only to see snow clouds rolling in from the west that ultimately dump a hefty load of the wet and heavy stuff. Yet, despite the sudden blizzards that can wreak such havoc in so many ways, the reality remains that the first day of spring does come and with it the promise—delayed though it may be—of the bounty new possibilities can bring.
Originally named for the wells in the caves that those tribes who first inhabited the region carved out of the limestone banks of the headwaters of the Smoky Hill River, Cheyenne Wells was built on the belief that hard work and determination would yield reward in this untamed land. Against the backdrop of this frontier spirit, it seems more than fitting that March is such a significant month in the history of a somewhat small but ever sturdy town.
On March 3, 1870—one hundred and forty nine years ago—the Kansas Pacific Railroad finally reached the site that would grow into the town of Cheyenne Wells. The arrival of the Kansas Pacific officially put an end to the perpetually doomed attempts to have a successful stagecoach line through the sometimes unforgiving landscape. It also established a future for the town and its 695 residents.
That future became even more of a certainty when, twenty years later Cheyenne Wells was officially incorporated as a town on March 14, 1890.
Fifty-four years after that, on March 9th, 1944, a new business opened up in a small office facing the Court House Square, giving birth to a relationship with both the people and the businesses of the community. Within a year, the business had outgrown that small office and a new location on Fenner Avenue was purchased. There, the business continued to operate for the next 25 years until it was decided that a new building would be built. And so it was at the location on East 1st Street where it continues to operate today.
That first day, that first step was taken seventy-five years ago when Eastern Colorado Bank first opened its doors. This article, the first in a series, is a celebration of those years and will tell the tale of the realization of one man’s dream and how he, and those to follow, helped the dreams of others to become real, as well.
ONE MAN’S DREAM
The story of Eastern Colorado Bank
The old black and white photos of Victor Leon Weed, founder of Eastern Colorado Bank, appear to have been taken in the first half of the 1900s, when his career as bank owner was just getting started. Nonetheless, he looks perfectly suited for the profession. Hair neatly barbered and combed, a nice suit and tie, his gaze behind rimless glasses stares directly into the camera, just a hint of a smile above a square jaw. By all appearances, he is the epitome of a smart, hardworking, dedicated businessman who’s worthy of the trust people have placed in him to handle their finances.
It makes sense. Eastern Colorado Bank was not his first experience with banking; in fact, he and his wife, Leona, had both worked in a bank in Kansas prior to moving to Cheyenne County, Colorado. But where the word “banker” might conjure up an image very similar if not identical to the one Vic Weed portrayed, his life and his family growing up were likewise reflective of a time in American history where success rarely ever came without a clear ability to be tough, as well, when required.
“Tough is a good word for it,” says Lou Weed, Victor and Leona’s first born son. “That’s exactly what he was. And so was his family. They were tough people. They had to be.”
Victor was one of nine children born to parents Myron and Lucy. The family originally lived in Weskan, Kansas, but Lucy longed for “greener country”, so the family packed up and moved to Arkansas.
“My grandparents had a farm and ran a hardware store,” Lou says. “And there’s a story that shows just how tough my grandfather was. They were going to put a road through my grandfather’s property, and he just wasn’t going to have that. So, he got his gun and positioned himself on a hill where he could look out on where that road was supposed to go. Whenever workers showed up to get that road started, he shot at ‘em with his shotgun. Well, the sheriff wasn’t going to have any of that, so he locked him in jail until the road was built. Then he let him loose, no charges or nothin’. That’s the way they did things back then.”
As it turned out, Arkansas may have been beautiful, but it wasn’t an easy place for a man to earn a living sufficient to support nine children. The family eventually headed back to Weskan where Victor worked in the local bank while finishing high school. When that bank closed and moved to Sharon Springs, Victor moved, as well.
Leona Meis, the woman who became Victor’s wife, hailed from the small German town of Catharine, Kansas. With thirteen siblings, Leona learned from an early age to hold her own, which she did quite well. As was common in those days, she didn’t attend school past the eighth grade, but no matter. Like her husband, Leona had a real head for business and worked alongside Victor at the bank in Sharon Springs.
There is no doubt; those were lean times. It was the height of the Great Depression, and Kansas wasn’t spared. In addition to his job at the bank, Victor made extra money driving the doctor on house calls to tend to the sick and dying. One can only wonder what impact that might have had on the young man when he owned his own bank in later years. Lou recalls his father telling a story about the doctor being called to a farm where the farmer had tried to kill himself by drinking poison. “That doctor tended to the man,” Lou says, “and I guess he was okay enough that the doctor and dad could leave. They’d barely made it to the car when the farmer’s wife came running out, yelling her husband had just drunk more poison.” Lou shakes his head at the thought. “That musta been just terrible.”
In 1936, Leona gave birth to their first son. Lou, laughing, recalls the story his father told him, once he got older, about how he came into the world. “If it wasn’t for the Depression, you wouldn’t have been born,” Victor had said. “We didn’t have any money back then. We couldn’t afford to go to the movies or out to eat. So, all we did was stay home and make you.”
When the bank in Sharon Springs was sold, Victor and Leona came to Cheyenne County, Colorado where they bought a small farm and ranch a few miles south of the town of Arapahoe. The year was 1941.
Over the years, there had been two different banks in Cheyenne Wells. Neither one had survived, and the town hadn’t had a bank since 1933. Victor, having worked in two banks by that time, dreamed of opening his own and had Leona’s support to do so. After a couple of years, they sold their farm for $8,000.
By then, the year was 1943. Victor had managed to raise another $17,000 from investors, bringing the total available capital to $25,000. “Twenty five thousand dollars was worth more back then,” Lou muses, ”but it still ain’t much.”
At that point, Victor went to Denver to get a charter for the bank and took eight year old Lou along with him. Again, Lou laughs. “I think he probably took me along so Mom would know he wasn’t partying,” he says. His smile fades as a memory comes back. “I still remember what that bank commissioner told my dad, too. He told him ‘they broke 2 banks, and they’ll break you, too.’”
The Weed family, now with two sons since Lou’s brother, Jim, had been born, moved to Cheyenne Wells. “Dad killed the oldest cow we had, so Mom had made about three to four hundred pounds of canned beef,” he recalls, “and we had maybe five or six pounds of butter. It was like that, you know. They knew what their expenses were and they made sure to keep ‘em low.” The plan was to serve the farmers, ranchers and individuals of Cheyenne Wells and surrounding area in the ways only a community bank can while Victor vowed that, if things went south and he lost his $8,000 investment, he would liquidate the bank’s assets and protect the investors from losses, themselves. At the same time, Leona would run an insurance agency inside the bank to provide revenue should times get a little rough.
And so, despite a less than desirable amount of capital in hand and a less than encouraging comment from the bank commissioner in Denver, Eastern Colorado Bank opened its doors for the first time on March 9, 1944.
Victor always believed in hard work, but owning the bank just made that belief that much stronger. “He never took vacations,” Lou says with a slightly dry tone. “He always said if you had time to go on vacation, you have time to work.”
As Lou also describes it, banking in those early days in Cheyenne Wells was a little different than banking in other places, and Victor’s ability to be tough when tough was called for came in handy. “My dad played the piano with a dance band every weekend,” Lou says, “and, well, you know, around nine or ten o’clock at night, a few fights would break out.” He pauses. “Well, maybe it was more than a few and maybe it wasn’t just during the dances. But things were different in those days. Men fought more—a lot more—than they do now. I don’t know why. Dad had to be tough. He had to stand up to ‘em because, if he hadn’t, they woulda just walked right over him.” After a moment, Lou adds that the fact that sometimes Victor’s aggression showed itself with difficult bank examiners was really beside the point. Nonetheless, when Victor occasionally found himself squaring off with some rather…boisterous…man on a Saturday night, he often had some help. Over time, he’d developed a close friendship with Father Keefer, the local—and rather large—Catholic priest who wasn’t afraid to stand up to bullies, whether they were out of control cowboys and farmers or local members of the KKK.
In the years that followed, Victor stayed true to certain principles. Always make sure to have enough capital on hand. Whenever possible, help out young guys who are trying to get a start, Loan what’s needed to help customers through lean times until they can get back on their feet. Foreclosure is always, always a last resort. And show special care for widows.
It was only after his father died that Lou found a file of customers—all widows who were unable to pay. Each file was marked “paid in full” with funds Victor had paid himself.
Those same years also brought their share of triumphs and tragedies. Victor, feeling a responsibility to the community, was involved—directly and otherwise—in putting in a new sewer system, new water wells and water mains, a new hospital, a new post office, a new jail, two new schools, curb and gutter along paved streets and low income housing. In his own words, Victor said, “The bank takes no credit for such development but helping in whatever manner needed.”
While the bank flourished, personal tragedy struck Victor’s life. On the 25th of January in 1958, just a few hours after the birth of his first child, Lou got word that his mother had been killed in a car accident. She was only 44 years old. Lou was living in Fort Collins at the time; his wife had just given birth to their first child when he got the news. “That left Dad alone,” Lou says, “so I came back right away.” At this point, Lou stops and nods just a bit. “I never left after that. I worked at the bank for the next 40 years. I’d never seen myself working at the bank—I wanted to stay in the military—but I couldn’t leave my dad to run the bank by himself.” And so father and son worked together through the sixties, the seventies and the first part of the eighties.
On August 12, 1985, at the height of some of the most difficult times farmers and ranchers had known since the Depression, Victor Weed passed away. The bank that started off with $25,000 in capital had, at the time of his death, more than $12 million in assets.
There are a lot of things that can be said about a man who lived his life with such a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish and the sheer determination to make sure that it happened, as planned. And, outside of those who knew him the best, it’s difficult to say if his life was ultimately the life he had dreamed of it being. But it can be said that, because of Victor Weed’s dream of owning a bank, the dreams of others had a better chance of coming true. And maybe, on March 9, 1944, spring showed up right on time.