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On Washington Street, where I learned to two-step and square dance way back in the dark ages, is a Tavern that used to be The Billings Bank. Built with exquisite skill from Carthage stone, seasoned oak, and steel from the Neosho, MO foundry, the Tavern is the 19th oldest structure in Christian County. But this story goes even farther back than the date this gorgeous structure was erected.
Using a lot more time and effort than we should have, Vikki and I were able to meet with local and distant historians to travel back in time and learn about the City of Billings, the Billings Bank, and some of the artifacts we found tucked away here in the Bank Tavern. The story actually starts in Springfield, MO in a Saloon known as Kirby’s way in 1874. From there is branches out to Philadelphia, Deadwood, and even back to Colorado. The tale has outlaws, violence, humor, and still even more rumor.
Back in 1865, there was a man named J. B. “Wild Bill” Hickock roaming around southwest MO, playing cards and finding work that usually involved his skill with a pistol or simply his notoriety and fame. In July of that year, Wild Bill and man named Davis Tutt held what is considered the very first quick draw duel. Where the two men stood is immortalized in steel plates still visible on the square denoting where the two men stood. While this is not the story I want to tell, Wild Bill did manage to shoot Tutt in the chest, who was standing over seventy yards away, with a handgun.
Later in time, around 1875, Wild Bill lost a card game to Mr. Kirby, the owner and operator of Kirby’s Saloon, also located in Springfield, MO. Wild Bill did not have the cash, or credit, to cover his losses to Mr. Kirby. A deal was finally reached, without a gun fight, where Wild Bill would lounge around Kirby’s Saloon and serve beer and whiskey to customers who were excited to meet him, thereby generating revenue for the Saloon. This idea worked so well, Bill convinced Kirby to have a bar back and bar built and installed like the ones Bill has seen out West. Kirby liked the idea, and faithfully measured his saloon and sent off a letter to Philadelphia, to a Mr. John Brunswick, who had already achieved some degree of fame as furniture craftsman in Ohio. However, about the time that letter arrived in Philadelphia, there was trouble brewing with John. Meanwhile, Wild Bill departed Missouri for the Dakota territories.
On the same Philadelphia street as Brunswick’s shop were two other skilled craftsmen, Balke and Collender, both known for their own fantastic furniture and designs. According to Phillie legends, Brunswick was tired of being under-cut by his competition, and challenged both men to a duel at the same time. Granting the men one hour to write to the wills, Brunswick had an idea. Once Balke and Collender came onto the street, Brunswick offered to either shoot and kill them both or they could go into business together. The plan was that Brunswick would multiply his price by five, then Balke would reduce it by 10%, and Collender another 10%, should thrifty folks looking for a quote visit their street. The three men would then split the profits. This worked so well, they formalized their partnership in a massive manufacturing center just south of Chicago. Of course, at this point, they had received Kirby’s letter and commenced constructing one of the largest bars and bar backs in their history. The piece was completed and shipped by train.
Sadly for Kirby, though, was the simple fact that many people had never heard of Springfield, MO. As a result, the piece sat in a rail yard in Springfield, PA for almost 9 months, before eventually being shipped to Springfield, OH…and then Springfield, IN…Springfield, IL…and finally, in 1877, it arrived and was delivered to Kirby in Springfield, MO. While that piece was busy being hauled from one Sprinfield to another, to the man who’d given Kirby the idea had arrived in the Dakota territories.
In a town called Deadwood in 1876, Wild Bill had just been dealt what later came to be called the “dead man’s hand”, a pair of aces and eights. It was at this time another man, named Jack McCall, shot Wild Bill in the back of the head. In that saloon was a US Marshall who immediately arrested McCall and, having no court, held a rather illegal trial for McCall. McCall claimed Wild Bill had ruthlessly killed his little brother, un-armed, in cold blood. And when McCall saw Wild Bill, he was overcome with a sense of gaining revenge. Jack McCall’s story was enough to have him freed. McCall, according to some historians, departed for the Colorado territories, eventually finding himself in another saloon where he was overheard bragging about being the man who killed Wild Bill. A US Marshall was also in this saloon, but he knew something many others did not. Jack McCall did not have a little brother killed by Wild Bill in cold blood. He arrested Jack McCall and took him back to the Dakota territories, where McCall was retired in Yankton and then hanged for the murder of Wild Bill, in 1877. That hanging was in the spring of the same year the bar and bar back were finally installed at Kirby’s saloon.
Once Kirby retired from the saloon, in 1902, he sold the bar and bar back to the Yockum family in Clever, MO. Hauled there by train, the family opened an apothecary and a soda fountain, operating their business until 1932. While Kirby was retiring, the German immigrant family Rauch was opening their new bank in 1898. While the Yocum family was enjoying their soda fountain, however, the bankers took more and more risks with their client’s money, and the Billings Bank closed the very first day of the Great Depression. In an ironic twist, the bank has a small room above the area where bank customers would conduct business. This room was the work space of a Romanian dwarf who soul job was to peer down on customers, and be prepared to bring his 12 gauge, double-barreled shotgun to use should the bank be robbed. This poor man was fired the day before the bank finally closed its business forever. The irony is that a customer, who came in the next day, was incensed that she could not withdraw her hard-earned money. When told she could never have it, she returned to the street, retrieved her 10 gauge shotgun, and then proceeded back inside, where she unceremoniously dispatched the bankers, officially ending the reign of the Billings Bank.
At this point, the Yockums are preparing to retire in Clever, and the Watkins family, from Crane, MO, purchased the old Billings Bank building with the intent of opening a bar. Knowing the Yockums, and being aware of their imminent retirement, the Watkins purchased the monolithic bar back and bar and then paid to have it shipped the 8 miles to Billings, MO. Here is where both families realized how hard this would be. Due to its size, the bar and back had only ever been moved by rail car. There used to be tracks between Clever and Springfield, which is how an observant driver can spot the train trestle bridge that still exists on the old Hodges farmstead out in the middle of a pasture. While the tracks are now long gone, the bridge remains. In order to move the piece to Billings, the Watkins family, now in a rush as they’d already purchased and advertised their new bar, cut the bar and back in half, placing it on five separate flatbed wagons pulled by draft horses. The fifth wagon held the center mirror, all 11 feet of it. After getting the wagons to Billings, they then discovered that the 13-foot-tall piece was too tall to fit into the building. Instead of cutting the piece further, they instead spent one full week sawing out the bank wall above the door to make it high enough. Once that was completed, half the horses were taken out back, a steel cable ran through the bank, and the horses pulled the pieces in through the enlarged door. Once inside, it took forty men to move the pieces into place, and they have remained there since 1933.
The Watkins decided to call their bar The Bank Tavern, as it was still a bank, just without the money. The name has persisted just as the bar itself. In 1954, Cecil and Bernice Land bought the Tavern and its adjoining building, serving Budweiser lager, a popular beer amongst the heavily German influenced City of Billings. In 1988, Cecil sold to Shirley Lawrence, of Clever, MO, and she operated the Tavern until 2019, being forced to close by COVID.
On a visit home to see family, for “shits and giggles” as they say, I called Shirley and asked her if she was ready to sell her bar. She said, “Yep.” So, in March of 2020, the Yates took over the Tavern. Everything is still here, though now the building is up to code for the first time ever, and the health department, for the first time in almost 90 years, has given it a passing grade, with Vikki scoring a perfect 100%. Now, we serve over 20 types of beer, over 30 types of spirits, and set a first: This town has never allowed the sale of Alcohol on a Sunday. Well, we fixed that!