56 years later, intrigue still surrounds blast at Nicholasville bank

Deputy Sheriff Bill Moss, left, and Burch Peel inspected the entrance to a tunnel dug into the foundation of the bank so burglars could gain access and set off one and maybe two explosions.
Deputy Sheriff Bill Moss, left, and Burch Peel inspected the entrance to a tunnel dug into the foundation of the bank so burglars could gain access and set off one and maybe two explosions.

NICHOLASVILLE — Seniors here still talk about what happened on this date 56 years ago, the day a bank blew up as burglars tried to get into the vault.

While the heist was unsuccessful, its sheer boldness seems like something spun by Hollywood screenwriters, not an actual event that happened in a small Central Kentucky town (estimated population 3,800 in 1955) in the days of Dwight Eisenhower and Edward R. Murrow.

"You couldn't imagine something like that happening," said Ruth Overstreet of Nicholasville, a telephone operator working the late-shift switchboard at the time.

At 1:39 a.m. Monday, Jan. 17, 1955, a blast rocked the Farmers Bank building on Main Street, about a block north of the county courthouse. Some $72,000 in paper currency and silver was in the bank vault at the time, said Robert D. Jeter, the bank's executive vice president, according to news reports.

A waitress at a Main Street restaurant who heard a "muffled thud" ran in time to see the plate glass windows of Martin's Department Store, next to the bank, shatter and fall on the sidewalk. She notified police.

Less than a block south of the bank, Overstreet — who was then Ruth Teater Doolin — worked the upstairs switchboard of General Telephone Co. She heard the explosion but didn't feel any impact from the blast; neither did her 6-year-old son, Doug, who was sleeping soundly on a cot.

"The man at the city who was the dispatcher called in and said to blow the fire whistle, that there was an explosion at Farmers Bank," Overstreet said. So she flipped the switch for the fire whistle, an alarm that alerted the then-volunteer firefighters to call the switchboard so they knew where to report. "The board was just red with firemen calling in, everybody calling wanting to know what was happening. I got so excited answering the calls that I forgot to turn the whistle off."

When daylight broke, the destruction was apparent. The force of the blast shoved the back walls of the bank 2 to 4 feet outward, allowing parts of the ceiling and roof to cave in. A beam in the wall next to the department store was pushed 4 to 5 feet to one side, buckling the floor and knocking a 6-by-8-foot hole in the opposite wall.

"Investigators said they believed a cabinet from the vault was blown through the roof and fell back into the building," The Lexington Herald reported.

Bill Muir, 81, who sits on the board of directors of Farmers Bank today, remembers driving through town and seeing people picking up change that had blown from the bank and onto the streets.

"There were a lot of people picking up nickels and quarters," Muir said.

A foiled plan

All but $1,000 of the $72,000 in the vault was recovered. Some of the bent or damaged coins were taken to a local dump along with other debris from the blast, but some coins were retrieved by those who wanted a piece of history. Bill Hayden, another director on the Farmers Bank board, who was in high school at the time of the explosion, remembers going to the dump to search for coins.

"I guess somebody had told us that there was money out there, so we went out there looking, stirring the dirt around," Hayden said.

As police, the state fire marshal and the FBI investigated during the next several days, they found an operation that took some planning and time to do.

"The blast was said by investigators to have been caused from nitroglycerin being set off from a point inside the vault, which was reached by drilling through the four-layer brick walls and a quarter-inch steel wall," The Jessamine Journal reported. The explosion had ripped open that steel layer.

But what was even more revealing was that the burglars apparently had dug a tunnel about 60 to 65 feet from a walled-in section of Town Branch — a creek that runs through Nicholasville's business district — to a point beneath the bank building, according to newspaper accounts.

"A deputy sheriff ... who explored the tunnel leading from the creek to the bank said he found a large amount of bricks and debris at the end of it," The Lexington Leader reported. "He said he could see a portion of the vault's foundation."

Investigators later speculated that Farmers Bank might have been hit by the big blast and a smaller, earlier one that was too weak to open the vault.

A few days before the Monday explosion, a janitor in the bank noticed cracks in the plaster. He reported it to Jeter, the executive vice president, who said he thought the cracks were due to the natural settling of the vault, The Lexington Herald reported.

But investigators wondered whether the cracks were evidence the burglars had detonated an initial blast that did minimal damage before they returned to the scene to finish the job with a bigger bang — and overcompensated.

Police initially thought they might find the bodies of the safe-crackers under the debris, "but no trace has yet been found of anyone connected with the blast," The Jessamine Journal reported.

No suspects, no records

Temporary repairs allowed Martin's Department Store to reopen, but Farmers Bank was so badly damaged that it was forced to open a temporary window for transactions in the First National Bank building about a block south on Main.

Inspectors ultimately deemed the bank building unsafe. The week after the blast, the bank announced plans to raze the partially demolished building and replace it with another. In meantime, Farmers Bank put temporary offices at the S.J. Yeary lumberyard at Main and Oak, where Central Bank is today, and later erected a new building at the blast site at Main and Walnut that is still in use.

While Farmers Bank took a physical beating from the explosion, the incident didn't appear to greatly affect deposits. At the end of 1954, shortly before the explosion, the bank reported a little more than $3 million in deposits. At the end of 1955, the year of the explosion, deposits had decreased to $2.9 million.

Today Farmers Bank has total assets of $90 million and total deposits of $78.4 million, said chief financial officer David Damron. There have been several additions to the bank; Damron's office is where Martin's Department Store was.

No one was ever arrested or prosecuted for one of the more unusual crimes in Jessamine County history. One Nicholasville police officer who had a knack for stating the obvious or who had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek was quoted as telling one reporter: "We don't know who did it, but it was either an inside job or an outside job."

David Beyer, a spokesman for the FBI in Louisville, said last week that any files about the 1955 explosion have been destroyed.

One other note of interest: About two hours after the Jan. 17, 1955, explosion in Nicholasville, another explosion blew open a safe at a Ford car dealership in Perryville, 33 miles southwest, in Boyle County. The safe contained receipts from the previous Saturday, plus "a quantity of checks and notes," The Lexington Herald said.

"Investigating officers said the blast apparently was set off by nitroglycerin," the Herald reported. Nitroglycerin was the same substance thought to have been used in the Nicholasville bank explosion.

Two days later, a cash box from the safe was found off Lebanon Road near Perryville by a construction company employee who was driving past and saw it. Cash had been removed from the box except for a $1 bill in an envelope. The employee returned the box to the dealership owners.

As far as can be gleaned from a review of newspapers on microfilm in the Jessamine County and Lexington public libraries, there was no mention whether investigators thought there might be a link between the Nicholasville and Perryville explosions.