STAPLES -- Seventy years ago a young waitress named Ruth Harkcom was asked by her boss at the Olympia Restaurant in Staples to run a deposit bag over to the First National Bank of Staples.
That errand landed Ruth (Harkcom) Walker right smack in the middle of a bank robbery. And thanks to her quick thinking, she kept the restaurant's money out of the hands of the five armed bank robbers who were never caught.
Walker turns 95 on Thursday, but she can still remember that morning, back on July 15, 1931, when five men dressed in business suits robbed the former First National Bank of Staples, which was located where First Integrity Bank is now.
She is believed to be the last surviving eyewitness out of about 10 bank employees and customers who were there when the bank robbery took place 70 years ago.
Walker was standing in line waiting to make a deposit when three of the armed men came in. She and the other customers were told to go into a back room at the bank and lie down on the floor. Walker, then 24, laid down on the floor, right on top of the deposit bag so the bank robbers couldn't see it.
"I was scared," said Walker, who has lived at Greater Staples Care Center since December. "I was standing in line and they came up right behind me."
Staples World publisher H.W. "Doc" Sims walked into the bank as the robbery was taking place. He wrote a first-hand account of the robbery in a July 15, 1931, front page story in his newspaper. He pondered whether the other participants in the hold-up got as big of a "kick out of it" as he did.
When he walked in the door of bank vice president J.R. Nims' office, he wrote: "It looked like midnight in a 5 cent flop house. All over the floor were bodies face down. So sorry that we had to be late and miss out on some of the more interesting bits of scene. When we arrived the laying room was getting limited and our feet were sticking out into the doorway of the lobby."
The "bandits" didn't give any orders to the victims on the floor but debated amongst themselves whether to use the bank vice president as a human shield to reach their car, wrote Sims. The two bank robbers outside the building warned bystanders to keep their hands in the air until the gang left.
Sims wrote that the three men in the bank walked out to the gang's "high powered" car, escaping with $14,000 cash and $3,000 in traveler's checks, which were covered by insurance.
However, before the bank robbers were able to turn at First Avenue, W.C. Kelehan, president of a different Staples bank, shot at the car with a rifle but missed. Kelehan and others got in a car and chased the bank robbers, but after a few miles they realized their vehicle just wasn't able to get up to the speed of the car driven by the five bank robbers. No one was reported injured in the robbery.
Sims said there were several reports in the area from people who said they saw the car traveling at a high rate of speed. The Cass County sheriff telephoned to say he saw the car as described to him near the Elwell store a few miles north of Poplar.
After the robbery, Walker returned the deposit bag to her boss at the Olympia Restaurant, which is no longer there. She worked the night shift at the restaurant as a waitress and cook and often had to deal with the many rowdy railroad workers who stopped in between shifts. She said she worked seven days a week, earning $11 a week.
Staples was a booming railroad town at the time of the robbery and was likely the target of experienced bank robbers, who likely expected to take off with the entire Northern Pacific Railroad payroll. Back then, the railroad paid its employees twice a month. July 15, 1931, was payday, but the bank robbers did not get the railroad payroll they were probably hoping to find in Staples that day.
Three years after the bank robbery Ruth Walker married Floyd Walker and she raised three children and three stepchildren. Her husband died in 1983. Ruth lived with her daughter Donna Breckenridge for four years before she moved to Greater Staples Care Center last December.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.