By David L. Bristow, Editor
Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954) was the bestselling author of books such as The Rim of the Prairie and A Lantern in Her Hand. Born and raised in Iowa, she spent her entire professional writing career in Elmwood, Nebraska.
Aldrich was fond of Elmwood and proud of being a small-town woman. But her commitment to her adopted hometown ran even deeper than her neighbors realized.
Bess and her husband, Charles (“Cap”) moved to Elmwood in 1909 when they and some partners bought the local American Exchange Bank. After Cap’s untimely death in 1925, Bess remained one of the bank’s three stockholders.
By 1933 — perhaps the most desperate year of the Great Depression — the bank was in serious trouble. In March, President Roosevelt declared a “bank holiday” to restore confidence in the nation’s banking system. The plan was this: banks would close for one week, after which time only those that could show sufficient cash reserves would reopen.
Aldrich knew the reserves of the American Exchange Bank were depleted. But if the bank failed, depositors would lose money, people with mortgages could lose their farms and homes. (Bank deposits were not yet protected by federal insurance.)
She traveled to Lincoln to meet with George Woods, the state banking department chief.
“If you will state the amount of cash necessary to keep the bank open at this time,” she told him, “I will have it ready for you in a few days.”
Aldrich cashed in securities and sold jewelry, and the bank survived. Later that year, she had to ask her publisher for an advance on royalties because she was short of money. She had told Woods during their meeting, “If it takes all, to the last cent I have, I shall not permit that bank to close.”
Woods told this to the Omaha World-Herald, but the story was not reported until after Aldrich’s death in 1954. She had made Woods promise not to make their transaction public during her lifetime.
How Nebraska’s Bess Streeter Aldrich became a bestselling author
A Hollywood movie premier in Lincoln: Bess Streeter Aldrich’s Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941)
Carol Miles Peterson, Bess Streeter Aldrich: The Dreams Are All Real (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 119-120.