By Starrla Cray
COKATO, MN Security at the State Bank in Cokato has come a long way since Bruce Peterson’s grandfather was a shareholder in 1892.
“The vault was little more than a closet, and the door to the safe was little more than the front of a steel door to a house,” Peterson said. “It wouldn’t survive a really good can opener.”
The bank building that was constructed in 1899 went through a major face lift in 1922-23.
“Then, you got into some real vault construction,” Peterson said.
That was also the year that burglar alarm bells were installed above the vault. An outside bell was located in a box with a colored glass cover.
“You could hear that thing from many distances away,” Peterson said.
The alarm was powered by a series of 24 1.5-volt dry cell batteries.
“This was before the days of reliable electricity,” Peterson said.
Attempting to open the safe would cause the series to short circuit, thus sounding the alarm.
“When those things went off, you didn’t want a guy standing there with a shotgun,” Peterson said, explaining that the sound was so sudden and so loud that it would startle the person. “That trigger finger’s going to go.”
Luckily, the State Bank of Cokato never had that scenario play out in real life.
“They would, of course, go off at odd times,” Peterson said. “If you opened the safe when you shouldn’t have, it would create a false alarm.”
The closest the bank got to actually using the burglar alarm was in the early 1930s.
“They had gotten a tip to be on the lookout for a potential robbery,” Peterson said. “At that time, First National Bank and the State Bank of Cokato were across the street from one another, and there was the potential to take both banks at once.”
A big black Cadillac with reverse opening passenger doors (known as suicide doors) slowly crept up to the street where the banks were located, Peterson said.
“It came up to the intersection and hesitated in front the banks,” he said. People were positioned on top of all the nearby buildings, ready to take action if needed.
“Somebody flinched,” Peterson said.
This caused the vehicle to start moving again, and it never came back.
“I don’t know if it’s fact or fiction, but that’s what my father told me, and he was there,” Peterson said. “I suspect I was 1 or 2 years old.”
Peterson’s father, Richard Milton Peterson (known as RM Peterson) was president of the State Bank of Cokato at that time. Before him, Charles Richard Peterson (known as CR Peterson) had been president.
Following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, Peterson was president of the bank from 1967 to 1995, and CEO from 1995 to 2003.
During his years of service, Peterson witnessed many changes in bank security.
“In 1965, there were about 20 bank robberies a day in the US,” Peterson said.
This prompted the federal government to pass the Bank Protection Act of 1968.
“That defined new rules how the bank was to be protected,” Peterson explained.
“Back in those days, the tellers were behind barred windows,” Peterson said. “Each teller window had a set of buttons, and you had to push the top and bottom. That would trigger the alarm to go off.”
If the old alarm bells sounded, someone would have to call the police, because they were not automatically notified.
Shortly after the Bank Protection Act, the old burglar alarm bells were replaced by radio contact. Buttons triggered a radio device that automatically called the Wright County Sheriff’s Department, Peterson said.
Most banks installed cameras, and eventually video surveillance, as well, he added.
Peterson took down the old alarm bells because he wanted to save them. The State Bank of Cokato got a new building in 1983, and the old building was used by a nearby tax service for storing computer records.
In 1992, the old building was damaged by a tornado and had to be taken down.
The alarm bells, however, are still on display in the current location of the State Bank of Cokato.
Antiques Roadshow on PBS did a segment about a similar alarm system made by the same place, American Bank Protection Company.
“Their findings were that there is no useable reason to have it it’s an antiquity,” Peterson said. “It possibly has a $2,500 curiosity value.”
Peterson installed fluorescent lights in the glass bell box, and had it releaded and restored.
The alarm still works, he said, adding that it is as loud as ever.
“You gotta know it’s coming,” he said.