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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Tightwad bank is beyond saving

The institution was a social hub and a sign of better times for the oddly named Missouri town. But it's closing, a victim of finances.

January 25, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

Tightwad, Mo. — HOW can a bank lose in a town like this?

There's a beautiful lake nearby that attracts hordes of boaters in the summer, a bounty of inexpensive land and loads of frugal people -- whose forefathers were so cheap that for nearly a century the town has been known as Tightwad.

The residents here -- all 63 of them -- take that name as a badge of honor.

"I'm proud to be a Tightwadian," said Tom Skaggs, 72, the town's first mayor and a former member of the volunteer fire department. "Whenever I say that, people laugh."

When the Citizens Bank of Windsor opened a branch here in 1984, it was only natural that officials would call it Tightwad bank. It quickly became a prime gathering spot in this square-mile patch of west-central Missouri.

Residents raced to open accounts and snatch up free piggy banks and key chains. A group of regulars began dropping by each day to gossip. Soon, nearly every adult in town had an account.

"I had people calling all the time, wanting information -- wanting anything with the name on it," said Carol Jordan, 47, a teller for the last 14 years. "For the people here, it was convenient. And it was their town, in print, for everyone to see."

Once word spread across the country, it seemed everyone wanted to be a Tightwadian. People wrote to open accounts with the bank, whose distinctive logo was a fist tightly clutching a wad of bills. On the checks, the logo was printed next to the account holder's name.

"They almost always asked for the same thing: 'Can I open an account? And how quickly can I get my checks?' " Jordan said.

AS the story goes, it all began with a watermelon.

Local lore maintains that it was a really good melon. Back in the early 1900s, the village mailman, on his rounds for the day, stopped by the town grocer and was immediately smitten by the large green orb.

But there was a problem.

Laden with his mailbag, the mailman was unable to carry the watermelon on his route. He asked the shopkeeper to hold on to it until he had finished his duty, and the shopkeeper agreed.

The mailman eventually returned to the store only to discover that the shopkeeper had sold his beloved watermelon to another customer who had offered 50 cents more.

As every person who has lived in Henry County since then knows, "he called the shopkeeper an old tightwad, and the name stuck," Skaggs said.

Tightwadians still get a kick out of the story and, in an odd way, have come to embrace some of the principles of frugality. Sitting on an overstuffed couch in his living room, less than a block from the bank, Willie Kelley talked matter-of-factly about his frugal ways.

Why not take advantage of the early-bird specials at restaurants, or browse the sales aisles at Wal-Mart in nearby Clinton? It helps him save to buy more parts for his collection of John Deere tractors -- at a good price.

"I don't care if people think I'm cheap," said Kelley, 82, a former steel mill worker. "I'm not. I'm responsible."

This sleepy corner of Henry County was settled in the mid-1800s by homesteaders, many hailing from the South and Southeast, who were lured by the rich soil, the numerous streams and an abundance of prairie grasses to keep the cattle fed.

Like other agricultural towns in the Midwest, Tightwad's farming community has declined in the last quarter-century. Young people left for jobs in urban centers like Kansas City, about a 90-mile drive northwest, and St. Louis, about 240 miles east. Residents, many of whom lived in modest single-story homes or double-wide mobile homes nestled in groves of oak and hickory trees, found themselves having to drive farther out of town to find work.

Tightwadians, however, figured they had a way to fight decline -- they were right next to one of the state's largest lakes, the Harry S. Truman Dam and Reservoir. Fishermen from the Midwest and beyond were drawn to its stock of bass and crappie. Boaters flocked here in the summertime, and many brought out their water skis.

Small businesses catering to tourists cropped up in nearby Warsaw, and real estate agents wooed urbanites with dreams of retiring in the country or buying vacation homes.

Why, thought the townsfolk, couldn't Tightwad enjoy some of that growth? They already had what they considered an advantage: one of the best names for a town.

Jay Simmons, chairman of the Citizens Bank, agreed. Many Tightwadians cheered when he came to town one day more than 20 years ago to talk about expanding his family business by opening a bank branch.

Even before the bank became a reality, locals began dreaming about the future. Skaggs envisioned a regional amusement park in the town, perhaps with rides that had fiscally responsible themes.

No longer would Tightwadians have to drive 13 miles or more to bank in the bigger towns of Clinton (population 9,300), Warsaw (population 2,300) or Windsor (population 3,200).

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