Temecula National Bank celebrates 100th anniversary

Craig and Christy Puma, owners of The Bank Mexican Restaurant & Bar in Old Town Temecula, hosted the 100th anniversary of the charter of the Temecula First National Bank on June 10, 2014.

The restaurant is housed in the historical building that has been maintained in much of its original condition. The celebration also included a re-enactment the following day of the first bank robbery in Riverside County.

A plaque on the outside of the building attributes the establishment of the bank in 1912 to Eli Barnett; his grandson Malcolm Barnett, a long-time native resident and local historian, narrated the re-enactment.

According to Puma’s historical account (printed on their menus), “Construction of ‘The Bank’ building began June 29, 1913, and took about a year to complete. The thick cement walls were poured by laborers pushing wheelbarrows up ramps and along scaffolding under the direction of the Remington Company of Los Angeles. Long tie rods, threaded on each end with washer steel plates, were run through the building between the two stories and the nuts tightened for safety on the second story. The walls of the building and the vault measure 18 inches thick. On March 27, 1914, the project was completed.

“The committee who planned the construction and management of The First National Bank of Temecula was [comprised of] Eli Barnett, C.P. Shumate, Hugo Guenther, George Burnham, Frank Fernald, Alex and Peter Escalier and Joe Winkles. Referred to as the ‘Hock Shop,’ loans were limited to $2,500 regardless of the applicant and or his collateral.”

The June 10 celebration included a historical recap by Barnett, a ribbon-cutting ceremony by the Chamber of Commerce, and a presentation to the Pumas from a representative of Senator Joel Anderson. Many of the attendees were garbed in period-specific wear and a collection of vintage cars lined the streets.

On June 11, the Old Town Temecula Gunfighters staged a re-enactment of the famous bank robbery – the first and only time the Temecula bank was robbed. A printed story of the bank teller’s first-hand account is preserved on The Bank restaurant menus.

“The first bank robbery in the history of Riverside County that anyone can remember occurred on August 17, 1930, at the Temecula First National Bank. On that fateful day, Miguel ‘Jerry’ Diaz entered the bank at 9 a.m. and walked to the teller’s window. Miss Agnes Freeman, the young teller, appeared to be alone because the bank cashier, John W. Chisholm, was in the back room at the time.

“As Diaz approached, I greeted him. He did not reply and became agitated when he recognized me,” said Miss Freeman. “I knew him from the Pauba Rancho where he was one of the hands that worked for my dad. He put a paper bag on the counter, drew a revolver, and ordered me to put up my hands. When Mr. Chisholm entered the room, Diaz had already crawled over the counter and put the gun to my back. He told us he would shoot us both if we caused trouble.

“He tossed the paper bag to Mr. Chisholm and ordered him to fill it with money. He then forced us into the vault where he attempted to lock us in, but Mr. Chisholm pushed a screwdriver into the jamb as the door was closing. Diaz couldn’t get the locking mechanism to work but escaped with about $2,000.

“As Diaz drove away in a yellow Model A Ford coupe, Mr. Chisholm grabbed a Luger pistol he kept in his desk and ran into the street calling for help. John McSweeney, a local rancher, was in the barbershop across the street getting a shave at the time. He jumped off the chair – towel, lather, and all – and he and Mr. Chisolm took off after Diaz in Mr. McSweeney’s Buick. They caught him about two miles up Winchester Road. When Mr. Chisholm fired two shots through his windshield, Diaz stopped and surrendered.

“He was later tried and found guilty of first-degree robbery and served three years in prison before being paroled. The Bank’s insurance company rewarded Miss Freeman with a diamond broach and Mr. Chisholm with a nickel-plated .45 caliber pistol for their bravery.”

Chisholm and McSweeney were also given commemorative rings for their bravery.

Shots rang out from the Old Town Gunfighters’ pistols as they re-enacted the crime. Elizabeth Veal played Agnes Freeman; her husband Bill was “Deadeye.” Tim Kimble, the group’s leader played “Dynamite Dick.” “Lobo,” Diaz’ lookout was played by Mike Loring and Craig Puma played “Roger.”

Also on hand for the event were Roger Honberger, the son of teller Agnes Freeman and three generations of her family.

At the time of the bank robbery, the two largest depositors in the bank were Walter Lennox Vail and Hugo Guenther. Hugo’s father, Fritz Guenther, a German immigrant who settled in Los Angeles in 1875, owned three saloons.

In 1902, he purchased a 294-acre tract from Mrs. Jerusha Mills for $10,000 and developed the Murrieta Mineral Hot Springs into a hugely profitable world-class resort and health spa. Its success spurred the growth of the Murrieta Depot, the Fountain House, the Monterey and California Hotels. The property is now the home of the Calvary Christian Conference Center and Bible College.

In July 1905, Vail had purchased the Temecula and Pauba Ranchos (38,000 acres) from the San Francisco Savings Bank; he subsequently purchased the Little Temecula Rancho and Rancho Santa Rosa for a total of 87,500 acres.

The Vail Ranch surrounded the small town center and the bank was established to provide banking services for the Vail Ranch cattle-selling operations. Unfortunately, Vail was crushed between two streetcars in Los Angeles; his son, Mahlon Vail, ran the ranch business until 1964 when it was sold to developers for $21 million.

The Bank weathered the 1930s Depression, but the bank was closed in 1943 during the bank shortage of the 1940s and WWII. In 1965, the building was purchased by Bob and Jean Reininger and turned into “The Sign of the Pitcher,” an antique shop.

David Covarrubias carefully refurbished the building and since 1978, the bank building has been a Mexican restaurant. In 2007, Covarrubias sold the restaurant to current owners Craig and Christy Puma, who continue the tradition of fine, authentic Mexican cuisine.

“It is a privilege and an honor to commemorate this historic occasion and to carry on this legacy,” said Craig Puma.

The Bank Mexican Restaurant & Bar are located in Old Town Temecula at the corner of Front Street and Main Street, one block from the Main Street Bridge and two blocks from City Hall.

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