By Steven Hoffman
Toward the conclusion of his 75-minute talk about the history of Peoples Bank of Oxford, Carl Fretz recalled a Friday night long ago when a local teacher named Dave Eldreth came in to the bank seeking a $5,000 loan. Eldreth was filled with ambition and wanted to start a pottery business, but he was having trouble securing the funding necessary to pursue his dream.
“He walked out that night with the $5,000 loan,” Fretz explained, “and he turned that $5,000 into one of the largest pottery operations in the U.S.”
Eldreth’s life changed that day that he went in to the bank to meet with Fretz. During a banking career that spanned 56 years, Fretz played a role in helping many families get the loans they needed to buy their homes. Peoples Bank of Oxford also extended a lifeline to many small businesses in the area. For most of the 20th century, the Peoples Bank of Oxford helped build a community. Fretz shared memories of his banking career at an April 8 program that was presented by the Oxford Area Historical Society.
Vernon Ringler, the president of the historical society, observed that Fretz’s sharp recollections of the bank’s best years serve as a history lesson on a long chapter in the story of Oxford.
“I was struck by how vividly he remembered growing up in Oxford,” Ringler said.
One obvious reason for the vivid memories is that Fretz, a lifelong resident, has always been invested in the Oxford community.
The bank’s beginnings
Oxford was a growing town in the first decades of the 20th century, and with the opening of a new bank—the Peoples Bank of Oxford--there were three banks that were competing for business, a fact that the local paper, the Oxford Press, first reported on in September of 1913. The Peoples Bank of Oxford opened early in 1914 and by the spring of that year it had moved to the Dickey building at the corner of Third and Locust, a prominent location in the town’s burgeoning business district.
Oxford’s oldest bank at that time was the Pioneer Bank of Oxford, which opened at the corner of Pine and Third streets in 1858. At that time it was the only bank between Port Deposit, Maryland and West Chester. The other bank in town was the Farmers National Bank was well-suited for an agricultural area like Oxford. This bank survived until 1929, when it closed its doors as the Great Depression was taking hold.
The Peoples Bank of Oxford found its niche under the leadership of the first bank president, James M. Showalter, who was a celebrated Civil War soldier who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Destined to be a banker
Ringler noted that Fretz seemed destined to be a banker. From the time Fretz started working at Harry Ferguson’s meat market at a young age, he was a saver, regularly depositing his money in the bank.
“I started working as early as I could,” Fretz recalled, “and I had been a constant saver.”
He had managed to save up about $940 before he even embarked on his career, a considerable sum for a young man at that time.
When he wasn’t working, Fretz was usually singing—people said that he had a wonderful singing voice, and he was a natural showman. While he was still in high school he was involved in a local radio program called “Oxford on the Air.”
In 1948, a friend recommended that he apply for a job as a teller at the Peoples Bank of Oxford, which had grown marginally profitable in the years leading up to World War II.
Fretz interviewed with Clyde Mason, the bank president. It was the start of a long friendship. Fretz vividly remembers his interview with Mason, and then picking up his first paycheck as an employee of the bank—for $18.75—in July of 1948.
In the early days, Fretz liked to tell people that he was a draft clerk. “What does a draft clerk do? He opens and closes the windows,” Fretz joked.
The young man was learning all he needed to about the banking industry. Bank records, in those days, were kept in hardbound ledger books. Banks had far fewer regulations, too.
Though he worked long hours, his personal life was moving forward as well. Fretz married Eleanor Nash in 1951 and soon they had started a family that would eventually include three daughters.
“Through the 1950s and 1960s, my life was routine, but it was busy,” Fretz explained. “I devoted my full effort to the bank. I worked 70 or 75 hours a week. I worked hard, but I became extremely close to Clyde Mason.”
Fretz would help Mason out on his farm and the two would go fishing. Mason mentored Fretz.
“He was an extremely conservative banker,” Fretz said. “He loved to deal with the farmers. He would talk fishing with them.”
In the post-World War II years, Peoples Bank was growing and so was the community it served. Oxford was a hub of commercial activity.
“Oxford thrived in those days,” Fretz explained. “There were theaters and restaurants and bus stops. There were men’s stores. We had everything.”
The bank was open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday. Oxford was so busy back then that on Fridays, the bank would reopen from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. because there was so much activity in town.
A cold day in February
Fretz remembered that that Feb. 22, 1964 was a cold day with steady snowfall. A man walked into the bank wearing a ski mask and a heavy coat, and Fretz recalled telling the man that he was really dressed appropriately for the weather that day. That’s when the man pulled out a silver revolver and waved it threateningly at Fretz and the other bank employees.
“He pointed the gun right at me,” Fretz said, “and he handed me a cloth bag and a piece of paper that said, ‘will kill.’”
Fretz turned to a coworker, Marie Boyd, and told her that they were going to give the man what he asked for.
“All I could think about was, I have three kids at home, what am I going to do?”
While bank robberies are more common today, they were not common in 1964.
Fretz and Boyd were taken to different prisons in the area to see if they could identify the culprit. A few months after the crime, the FBI contacted Fretz and said that a young man who had attempted to rob a bank in Delaware had also confessed to the robbery in Oxford. He was sentenced to three to ten years in prison.
A time for building up
Fretz’s stature at the Peoples Bank of Oxford grew year after year. He had always been a people person, and he became a well-known figure around town—in part because of his involvement with the church and other community organizations. Not many bankers could be called beloved, but Fretz was always more of a George Bailey than a Henry F. Potter. At the bank, Fretz had worked his way up to the position of executive vice president and he had a greater role in some of the decision-making at the bank. Fretz was eager to work with local business owners, helping them secure loans that they needed to grow their businesses.
In the early 1970s, a businessman named Irvin Lieberman was working to grow his family of newspapers. Lieberman knew that, under Fretz’s leadership, the Peoples Bank of Oxford was working with small businesses like his so he moved his banking to the Peoples Bank. It would be a long relationship.
“Carl thought the character of a businessman was important,” Lieberman explained. “He added character to the collateral, and that was the reason that I was able to get a loan.”
In July of 1972, Fretz was selected as the next president of the Peoples Bank, and one of his primary goals was to help the bank expand its services. When a neighboring building went up for sale, Fretz was able to convince his colleagues to have the bank purchase the building so that it could be torn down to make room for parking and a drive-thru window. The drive-thru window was a useful marketing tool, and attracted new customers.
“It went over big,” Fretz said. “We had lines of cars stretched out all the way down the street.”
Peoples Bank of Oxford opened its first branch on the southern part of town and the new branch proved to be popular. More branches were added throughout southern Chester County as the area experienced a commercial and residential building boom in the 1980s.
It was around the same time that the U.S. savings and loan crisis hit the U.S. banking industry hard.
The conservative approach that Mason had taken to banking helped position Peoples Bank of Oxford with surplus cash on hand at a time when many other banks didn’t have the money.
“We had millions to lend when nobody had any money,” Fretz recalled. The bank was able to loan money to other banks and businesses and it would earn favorable interest rates on those loans. The bank was profitable and shareholders benefitted.
The end of an era
By the late-1990s, signs of the area’s growth were everywhere—and so was the evidence of the Peoples Bank of Oxford’s impact on the community. Many of the new businesses and homes were made possible by the bank.
“We were small enough to know you, but big enough to serve you,” Fretz explained.
Fretz celebrated his 50th anniversary with the bank in 1998. The milestone received a great deal of attention in the media. He received more than 400 cards and letters from people who had been his customers through the years.
He retired as bank president during his 56th year with the bank, leaving a lasting legacy as a new generation of leaders took over management of the bank. In the new century, most small-town banks had merged with larger corporations, in part because of the increasing regulations that were placed on financial institutions. Following this trend, the Peoples Bank of Oxford was sold to the National Penn Bank in 2004.
“It was the hardest decision I ever had to make,” Fretz said of the decision as a shareholder to vote in favor of the merger.
The Peoples Bank of Oxford’s impact on the Oxford community will long be felt—and so will the contributions of its longtime president.
“To me, he was one of a kind,” Lieberman said. “He was well thought of and was very instrumental in the growth of small businesses in the area. He was a pioneer and a catalyst for the growth of Oxford.”