Northwoods Bank of Minnesota has an interesting history. Chartered nearly a century ago in the small town of Dorset MN, the bank successfully navigated through the depths of the depression, the expansion years of the 1980’s and 1990’s, a charter re-location and name change, and most recently, the “great recession”. Throughout the years, the bank has grown and prospered under the ownership and management of five generations of the Hewitt family. Please take a few minutes to read about our history.
1919-1929 - In the beginning
By 1919, the tiny community of Dorset had been thriving in the heart of Minnesota's lake country since the Great Northern Railroad built a depot there 26 years earlier. Located nearby for the convenience of local farmers were a grain elevator, potato warehouse, and stockyard. In the days before the automobile, tourists came to Dorset by train. Sometimes as many as 50 tourists per day were met at the station by fishing camp operators with horse-drawn buggies. The Dorset skyline of the era included a hotel and restaurant, a general store and post office, a blacksmith shop and livery stable, a church, a school, a town hall, and of course, a saloon.
The last business to be established in the early days of Dorset was the bank. Some of the local farmers and merchants decided they needed a financial institution nearby. They persuaded W.L and L.F. Cary, who owned a bank in nearby Menahga, to open an establishment in Dorset. The Farmers State Bank of Dorset was organized on September 25, 1919. For a short time, the bank operated out of Peter Avenson's general store, then from a log building nearby.
Less than a year after they established the bank, the Cary brothers sold their controlling interest to J.C. Hewitt and his son, Colby (C.R.) Hewitt, in June 1920. J. C. Hewitt operated a bank in Nassau, MN. The Hewitts then erected a bank building a block east of Main Street, facing the railroad tracks (now the Heartland Trail). Train passengers would see immediately that Dorset was a flourishing town with its own financial institution. The 1920s were prosperous years for the bank. C.R. Hewitt managed the bank, earning a salary of $100 a month as cashier, while board directors were paid annual fees of $10.
A store, with living quarters above, occupied half of the bank building.
1929-1939 -The Great Depression strikes
When the stock market crashed on Black Monday in October 1929, a depression settled on the country. Depositors at banks around the nation, concerned about the safety of their money, lined up to withdraw their funds. This was before FDIC deposit insurance was available. But depositors were confident in the stability of Farmers State Bank of Dorset and left their funds on deposit. However, the federal government declared a National Bank Holiday in 1933, and the bank was forced to close its doors for almost a month. The Dorset bank was one of the first in the country to reopen three weeks later during the first week of March.
The April 6, 1933 issue of the Park Rapids Enterprise reported: "The bank reopened with no restrictions on accounts, and patrons of the institution showed their confidence by increasing the bank's deposits more than $1,000 the first day." Assets in June 1933 were $41,560. Not a single depositor lost even a dime.
In July 1936, the bank was moved from its location facing the railroad tracks to a building across from the general store. The move was to take about ten days, including transportation of the large vault. But, it was a hot, dry summer, and the thermometer hit 109 degrees, with temperatures over 100 for an entire week. Instead of ten days, the move took ten weeks. Once relocated, however, the bank remained in the same building (currently a gift shop) for almost 50 years. The year of the move, C.R. Hewitt's monthly salary was $125, and directors received $30 per year. Total assets for 1936 were $73,618.
1940-1980 - Hewitts have strong ties to the bank
In 1951, C.R. Hewitt became bank president. His son, Gordon, assumed the position of cashier. The promotion doubled the elder Hewitt's salary to $250 a month. Total assets were $686,000. A year later, the bank remodelled both the interior and exterior of the bank building. The familiar brick-fronted building graced Dorset's main street for almost 50 years. It was during the '50s that the community became famous in Ripley's Believe It or Not as the nation's smallest town with a bank. In 1954, George Grimm's column in the Minneapolis Tribune featured Farmers State Bank as having the highest per capita deposits of any bank in the upper Midwest.
Gordon Hewitt was appointed president when his father retired in 1967. By that time, the assets had increased to $2.2 million. When the bank reached the half century mark two years later, assets were at $2.6 million. In 1976, the bank was remodeled once again. The brick was pulled off the building face and replaced by a modern batten and shingle. The building is currently a gift shop, with the original 1919 vault used to display gift items.
In early 1978, Gordon's son, Mark Hewitt, was appointed chief executive officer. He became the fourth generation of Hewitts to manage the bank. In the summer of that same year, a branch office was opened in Nevis in the old State Bank of Nevis building. This would mark the beginning of an era of expansion. When the 60th anniversary was celebrated a year later, bank assets were at $7.5 million.
1980-2000 – Growth and expansion, name change and charter re-location.
In 1980, a new building was erected to house the branch office in Nevis. Three years later, the bank opened a drive-up facility on the outskirts of Park Rapids. President Mark Hewitt washed the car of each person who opened a new checking or savings account at the grand opening on July 30, 1983. After the Park Rapids facility opened, customer traffic patterns changed. Nevis accounted for half the bank's business, while 37 percent of the business was conducted in Park Rapids and only 13 percent in Dorset.
Sixty-five years after Farmers State Bank of Dorset was chartered, the name was changed to Northwoods Bank of Minnesota. The new name, which became official in September 1984, better identified the bank’s geographical and demographical customer base.
In 1985 construction was completed on a 4,000-square-foot building at the site on Highway 34 on the east side of Park Rapids, and the main operations of the bank were moved to this location. The institution's assets increased 24 percent that year. This building was expanded again in 1989.
With the dramatic drop in business in the Dorset location, the board of directors decided to relocate the charter six miles west to Park Rapids, and in the summer of 1986, an era came to an end. Television crews and Associated Press reporters covered the closing of the bank in Dorset. The town (population 32) had lost its distinction as the smallest town in America with a bank charter. At that time, Northwoods Bank had approximately $16 million in assets and 16 employees. Dorset now thrives as a summer dining destination with the annual Taste of Dorset drawing a few thousand visitors.
In 1994 the bank celebrated its 75th anniversary. With offices now in Park Rapids and Nevis, total bank assets had grown to $36.6 million.
In 1998 the bank further expanded by opening a branch in Pine City, MN followed in 1999 with a branch opening in nearby Rush City, MN. An express branch next to the Post Office in downtown Park Rapids opened in 2000. At the end of 2000 total bank assets were $67.3 million.
By 2004, Northwoods Bank had outgrown its main office building, and construction began on a new 12,000 square foot structure to house 35 employees. Bank assets topped $100 million in 2005 as the bank moved into its new building and reached $125 million in assets in 2008. The bank remained profitable during the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 and continues to be a leader in mortgage and small business lending in its market areas.
The Hewitt family continues to be involved with the bank, with members of the 5th generation, Stephanie and Scott, joining the bank in 2005 and 2007 respectively. CEO Mark Hewitt notes that the increasing burdens of managing a bank in a highly regulated industry have caused many bank owners to sell or merge with larger institutions. "I'm firmly convinced that communities are better served by small, independent banks such as Northwoods," Hewitt stated. "Hopefully, the locally-owned and operated bank will continue to be a vital part of rural America. We recognize that our bank’s future depends on the success of our friends, neighbors and customers. So throughout our long history, one thing has always remained the same--our commitment to you, our valued customers. ”
Written By Mary Ihla and Mark Hewitt