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Den Herder Bank likely lost most money

Kevin Collier • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:29 PM

On Aug. 18, 1933, Baby Face Nelson, leading the band of thugs, knocked off the bank for around $2,500, or the equivalent of about $41,000 today. The bank was insured.

      By comparison, Jacob Den Herder’s Zeeland State Bank was robbed 50 years earlier, in 1882, and was not insured. Thieves walked off with almost $200,000 worth of cash and coin in today’s value.

      Subsequent theft and attempted heists make this bank the likely candidate as suffering the most cost and loss associated with bank robbers in Ottawa County history. By the time Den Herder departed his banking career in 1900, thieves had racked up as much as $300,000 in damage by today’s monetary value.

      Jacob Den Herder founded the Den Herder Bank in Zeeland in December 1878. It became the Zeeland State Bank, and then First Michigan Bank in 1958. The Huntington Bank of Columbus, Ohio, acquired FMB in 1997.

      Den Herder was born in Borselle, a Province of Zeeland in the Netherlands, on Jan. 11, 1834. He came to America in 1847, settling in Ottawa County. At the age of 44, he established the the Den Herder Bank.

      The first robbery of the Den Herder Bank took place on the night of Oct. 18, 1882. Burglars broke into the banking office and drilled a hole through the top of the safe, dropped in powder, then exploded it, using a fuse. The robbery made national headlines, but the amount lost was never disclosed by Den Herder.

      Newspapers reported the sum stolen from the bank to be “from $7,000 to $9,000.” That amount would be the equivalent of $156,000 to $200,000 today.

      “My safe, however, was spoiled (ruined), so I bought a much larger one and what I supposed to be burglar-proof,” Den Herder wrote of the robbery in a personal journal. “It taught me, however, how dangerous my position was in storing moneys, often causing a nervous uncertain feeling, and also my dependence on the protecting hand of God.”

      Den Herder suffered the loss, then bought insurance to protect himself and his customers alike against a future robbery.

      But on the night of Oct. 11, 1898, burglars again entered the bank. The men first blew open the vault door using nitroglycerin (or agnomite) and made off with about $4,000. The burglars were never caught, but Den Herder was insured.

      “As can be imagined, the depositors felt very much excited not knowing of my insurance. But as soon as they discovered my and their safety in that respect, it resulted in a greater confidence than ever before,” Den Herder wrote of the experience. “But it made me feel all the same very uneasy for the future.”

      Den Herder purchased a Mosler screw door safe, which was considered the safest of any kind, costing about $1,100. The investment in the new safe, and money stolen, although insured, would be nearly $104,000 in today' money.

      About 14 months later, Den Herder decided running a bank by himself had become a bit overwhelming.

      “I concluded to give up also the responsibility of running my bank alone by changing it into a State Bank (of Zeeland) under a board of directors, with my son, Chris, as its cashier,” Den Herder wrote in his personal journal. However, he remained on as bank president.

      Then, bank robbers struck again.

      On the night of Oct. 3, 1900, burglars entered the bank and succeeded in blowing off a few plates of the safe's screw door, but were unable to get the cash. The would-be robbers fled.

      The safe was so damaged that Den Herder had to buy a new one. Even though it was insured, it cost about $1,200, the equivalent of $31,000 today.

      “Although I knew that I had no loss to sustain by it,” Den Herder wrote, “the thought of how my honest business was a target for those low and desperate characters hurt me and had its influence on my nervous system.”

            Den Herder left the banking business, but his strong faith sustained him through many life challenges and tragedies.

            “No matter what the cause may have been,” he wrote about the hard times, “I looked upon it again as the hand of God that called me to trust in Him only.”

            Coincidentally, “in God we trust” has appeared on most U.S. coins since 1864 and paper currency since 1957. The banker had nothing to do with that, but he lived by the words, undoubtedly.

            Den Herder died in 1916 and is buried at Zeeland Cemetery.

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