Taken from a booklet titled:
Historical Sketches of Berrien County
By Robert C. Myers, Curator
1839 Courthouse Museum
Eau Claire Excitement
April 4, 1922 was certainly one of the most exciting days in Eau Claire’s history, for it was on that day that bandits held up the Eau Claire State Bank. The robbery touched off a wild chase and gun battle between the criminals and a furious posse of citizens.
The four robbers were all fellow employees in a Gary, Indiana factory. Their leader conceived the idea of robbing the Eau Claire bank while he was visiting a relative there, and he enlisted the aid of his friends. The four men stole a six-cylinder Pratt touring car in Elkhart and headed north to Eau Claire, where they spent a day or so familiarizing themselves with the town and local roads.
At about 9:30 Tuesday, morning the four bandits parked the Pratt in front of the bank. Two of the men got out while the other two, in best bank robber tradition, kept the motor running. Their leader walked into the bank carrying a large leather satchel, approached bank president Homer E. Hess, who was busy making ledger entries, and demanded that he stick up his hands. When he hesitated, the robber stuck two revolvers in his face and Hess complied with the order. His partner, meanwhile, held a gun on two other bank employees.
Hess was ordered to stand with the other employees, and as he walked across the room he made a misstep. The robber fired instantly, grazing the bank president’s stomach and also attracting the attention of Eau Claire citizens outside the bank. In the tense confusion the employees somehow managed to step on floor alarm buttons, sounding an alarm in two locations in town.
The bandits scooped up $1,185 in cash from the bank till, in their excitement and haste missing $3,000 more which lay in plain sight, and ran to their getaway car. As they sped off a deputy sheriff fired several shots, missing the bandits but punching holes in their touring car.
Unfortunately for the robbers, they had not counted on two things: the quick think of telephone operator Mrs. Jack Claxton and the fury of Eau Claire’s citizens.
Mrs. Claxton, not knowing which way the bandits were going, simply opened all the telephone lines and cried out, “The Eau Claire bank has been robbed and the bandits are headed your way!” Her message, of course effectively alerted everyone in the area, and the entire countryside was instantly up in arms. Several men pushed a heavy lumber wagon across the road and almost immediately saw the bandits speeding toward it. The big touring car whirled around and retreated the other way, followed by the Eau Claire men in a Ford pickup truck, exchanging revolver fire for shotgun blasts.
The getaway car finally ran off the road and mired itself in a mud hole. The robbers fled through a field to a tamarack swamp, pursued by dozens of Eau Claire men armed with an assortment of rifles, pistols and shotguns. One robber was shot in the arm as dashed across the field and was captured, but the others held out for a short time in the swamp until a few close rifle shots induced them to surrender.
The four bandits pleaded guilty to bank robbery at their court arraignment two weeks later. On April 24 they were each sentenced to thirty to thirty-five years in prison.
Note from RC Ferguson: The Central Office Operator could do this. All Phone in the entire District would ring one loooong ring for emergencies.