I began my banking career in September 1940 as a teller with the Walsh County State Bank of Grafton, N.D.
No real thought was given to the fact that the institution was a "Bremer Bank." I was just pleasantly pleased that I was employed at a bank with a monthly salary of $60!
World War II was already raging in a large part of Europe. Poland had fallen to Hitler and Germany's bombing of England was a daily occurrence. It seemed inevitable that the United States would be drawn into the spreading conflict so it came as no surprise when the government made it mandatory for young men to be conscripted for a one-year period. I learned in October that I had been one of the first in the county to be named for this new experience.
Volunteering to complete the year of duty, I left my "new job" and was detailed to the 20th Infantry Division located at Camp Warren, Wyo., a few miles from Cheyenne.
After graduating from Officer's Candidate School, I was assigned to the 81st Division, spending nearly 15 months in the South Pacific, including three months of combat. After a short assignment with Military Government in northern Japan, I returned to the Walsh County State Bank in Grafton, completing over five years of service.
I now realized that the bank had been saved by Otto Bremer of St. Paul, who had purchased controlling interest after the "bank holiday" of the Great Depression.
Otto Bremer, one of nine children, was born in Seesen, Germany, on Oct. 22, 1867. Since his parents were well to do, he was favored with the best available education. In 1883 he apprenticed in banking -- without pay. While in the bank, he dreamed about America where two of his brothers had already emigrated. In 1886 at 19 years of age, he made his decision to sail to America. Mr. Bremer and his brother Adolph arrived in Hoboken on Aug. 8 of 1886. Shortly afterward, they joined their brothers in South Dakota.
Some months later, Mr. Bremer went to the Twin Cities to find employment. Finding no opportunities in Minneapolis, he headed for St. Paul where he lived and transacted business for the remainder of his life.
St. Paul was thriving in 1886, a growing community of 125,000 people. Mr. Bremer's first job in the burgeoning metropolis was a lovely position with Farwell, Ozman, Kirk and Co. On his 80th birthday, years later, Mr. Bremer commented, "This was about the happiest moment of my life, at last I had a job in America." His salary was $15 dollars a week!
In 1887, the National German Bank hired Mr. Bremer as a bookkeeper. Within 13 years, Bremer was selected as chief clerk and became one of the major stockholders of the bank.
Meanwhile, brother Adolph married the daughter of German brewer Jacob Schmidt for whom young Adolph worked. Otto also joined the brewery and by 1901 the brothers each owned one-fourth of the stock. It was during this time that Otto developed and maintained a deep interest in small town banks in the area served by the brewery.
Otto became interested in democratic policies. In 1900, Mr. Bremer won the office of city treasurer and was again elected for the next four years.
Losing the race for St. Paul mayor in 1912, he abandoned his political pursuits and the National German Bank to join his brother Adolph who was now president of the brewery company. Jacob Schmidt had passed away in 1910, leaving his half of the business to his daughter who had married Adolph. Most of the brewery stock was now held by the two brothers and Adolph's wife.
The American National Bank of St. Paul in 1910 elected Otto Bremer to the board of directors. In 1921, the president of the American National Bank died. Mr. Bremer was elected chairman of the bank in 1921, a position he held until 1940. By 1929, just before the stock market crash, the American National Bank had become the largest bank in St. Paul. Bremer owned over 2,000 of the 4,000 shares of the capital stock, making him the largest investor in bank stocks west of Chicago.
It was about this time that Mr. Bremer decided to divest himself of previous investments in order to assist financially smaller banks in the region -- 55 banks in regions of Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
By 1934, Mr. Bremer's investments in "home banks" brought him near bankruptcy. Adolph, in an effort to protect Otto from his creditors, pledged shares of Schmidt Bremer Co. to secure Otto's debts. Accepting no salary for his financial assistance, he would see his support of these banks pay off.
Because of his friendship with President Franklin Roosevelt, Mr. Bremer reached an agreement with the Reconstruction Finance Corp. to save the American National Bank from takeover. This action was made possible by Mr. Bremer's guaranty to repurchase bank shares pledged over a period of years.
After a number of visits, President Roosevelt drafted Mr. Bremer to manage the Home Owners Loan Corp. of Minnesota. Mr. Bremer recalled making loans exceeding $51,000.00 to save 23,000 Minnesotans from losing their homes without any loss to the government. President Roosevelt called on Mr. Bremer again to head off a railroad strike, which might have created a national calamity.
In 1943, Mr. Bremer created a bank holding company including all his country bank stocks and the Schmidt Brewery, roughly valued at $2,500,000. In order to increase the benefits of local Bremer Banks, he later created the Otto Bremer Foundation which has been responsible for financial benefits to St. Paul and the areas served by the many Bremer Banks." Now in its 50th year, the foundation has funded a host of worthy projects which in 1999 exceeded $15,000,000.
Mr. Bremer died in 1951 at the age of 83.
Many "Bremer grants" were realized in Crookston and Brainerd while I was president of the Bremer Banks in each community. The most outstanding were grants to the College of St. Scholastica for their newly launched nurses' program in 1980. I remember attending the graduation of six young women who would not have been able to experience such a program without this assistance. The offering was so successful that St. Scholastica extended the curriculum for four years.
Warren Williams, now president of the Bremer Bank in Brainerd, has continued support of this resounding arrangement with grants that in 1999 totaled nearly half a million dollars.
I asked Mr. Williams to give me a list of Bremer "gifts" granted through the Bremer Bank here in Brainerd in 1999. Grants were awarded as follows:
Central Lakes College -- $10,000
Confidence Learning Center -- $20,000
Brainerd Habitat for Humanity -- $25,000
Kinship Partners -- $5,500
Peaks Charter School -- $45,000
United Way of Crow Wing County -- $5,000
Waukenabo Township -- $10,000
Brainerd YMCA -- $100,000
Youth Investment Foundation -- $11,000
College of St. Scholastica -- $88,000
Mr. Williams proudly informed me that Brainerd's Bremer Bank also provided grants totaling $46,000 in 1999!
I also learned that the newly acquired First National Bank of Aitkin, now a branch of the local Bremer Bank, was favored with $160,000 in Bremer grants -- $10,000 for Waukenabo Township and $150,000 for Riverwood Health Care.
1999 Bremer Foundation grants totaled $15,800,000!
(The author is a member of the Senior Class Advisory Board.)
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