KABOOM! The entire town of Oviedo was awoken from their Sunday night slumber by a massive explosion. It was 2:20 in the morning on November 18, 1929 and the front face Oviedo’s only bank had been blown clean off.
Bricks were thrown several hundred feet in every direction. The blast shattered the stained glass windows at the Baptist church. Windows of the Masonic lodge, post office, and other buildings for several downtown blocks were blown out. The explosion was heard up to 15 miles away in Sanford.
Citizens and police hurriedly arrived to the area within minutes. There they found a huge cloud of smoke and debris everywhere. No one witnessed any suspects fleeing the scene. The investigation began immediately.
The nation had no clue it was about to head into the Great Depression, but it was already in the midst of a recession. The stock market Panic of 1929 was only a month prior, and there had been numerous bank failures in the past year. However, the Oviedo bank was reportedly extremely healthy.
Still, in these years before the FDIC insurance, immediate fears turned toward the bank’s deposits which held much of the town’s wealth. The vault had contained large amounts of cash and other securities. It wouldn’t be the first time robbers used an explosive device to infiltrate a bank vault.
Upon inspection though the vault was intact. As a matter of fact, it was the least damaged part of the entire building. Investigators found that the assailants had entered through the bank’s rear, where a door appeared to have been jimmied open.
The explosives were detonated toward the front of the 30-by-40 foot lobby. The ceiling, furnishings and fixtures there were reduced to splinters littering the floor past waist deep. Adjacent offices of the bank officers were in tatters with papers and furniture wrecked. The vault’s inner compartment doors were blown inward, but the outer door had remained firmly in place.
Early reports suggested it was a botched robbery attempt, likely conducted by amateurs. The explosion — so the theory went — detonated prematurely before the would-be thieves could properly place it closer to the vault. Further, in their folly, the rookie bombers had used far more nitroglycerin than would have been necessary to blow a hole in the vault.
That made sense until one considered the fact that no human remains were found in the rubble. Had their over-abundant supply of dynamite gone off before they had it in position, no one inside could have possibly survived. Instead, it was almost as if the attackers placed the device intentionally away from the loot and then gotten the heck out of there.
Clues were scarce. Sheriff J. F. McClelland’s best lead came from reports of a vehicle speeding out of town around that time and later at Chuluota. A bus driver also claimed to have spotted the same speeding vehicle along Cheney Highway, which nearly crowded him off the road.
Ernest Amos was greeted by an urgent telegram from a messenger at his Tallahassee home. Having no telephone in his house, folks in Oviedo had been frantically trying to reach him since the wee hours of the morning. The state comptroller heard news of the bombing, followed by an unexpected request. Bank president Benjamin Gordon Smith wanted to re-open the bank… that same morning!
Despite naysayers in town suggesting the impossibility of the feat, with the blessing of Amos, the Bank of Oviedo re-opened at 8:30 AM. Not a moment delayed from its normal business hours! Temporary quarters were set up in an office next to the post office, and guards were installed to protect the bank’s back room and vault day and night.
Newspapers hailed the great resiliency of the town, touting the Central Florida never-say-die spirit. They boastfully reported that the Bank of Oviedo had become the nation’s first open air depository.
The staff hurriedly set up shop in their makeshift headquarters down the street, while bank executives worked to calm and reassure depositors. In fact, the timelock safe was still sealed until designated operating hours!
In the midst of all of that pandemonium, crews worked all day to clear the mess and protect the public. Debris was removed from the lobby and painstakingly examined by investigators. Another crew pulled down the teetering brick walls of the building, which had been cracked and dangerously pushed outward toward the street.
“That bungling burglar helped us,” said the bank’s cashier, “he got no money, and we are completely covered by insurance and will begin building a new building right away. He did us a favor!”
But life is seldom that easy.
The insurance adjuster from the Hartford Indemnity Company arrived by train that week. He examined the tragic damage, which was estimated at upwards of $20,000 to repair or rebuild.
Weeks turned into months as bank officials battled with their insurer to receive their recompense. The company refused to issue a dime and the whole thing seemed surely bound for court, meaning there would be no new bank building any time soon.
The Hartford’s defense claimed that the Bank of Oviedo held a policy for burglary insurance. This, however, to their eyes had been no attempted robbery at all. Instead they forwarded the theory that the whole incident was done out of spite. They didn’t offer a policy for grudges.
Operating out of its interim location for two months, the Bank of Oviedo failed to open on the morning of January 15, 1930. After serving the town since 1913, the bank’s board of directors made the difficult decision to shut its doors the afternoon prior.
It was added to a growing number of failed banks around the country. Partly to blame was a large celery crop that year (requiring large withdrawals for payroll). However, let’s be real. The bank still not having any front walls has a way of damaging customer confidence. Many of the bank’s largest depositors had pulled their funds out.
The bank was left with a large deficit when the cash it actually held and what it had on the books grew to unsustainable levels. Over $100,000 was on the balance sheet when it closed, but the bank was only capitalized to $30,000 plus a $10,000 surplus.
BOOM! “Not again!” nervous residents surely were thinking after their Saturday evening was interrupted by yet another explosion. Just three days after the bank failure, the home of the institution’s president was shattered by dynamite. Three rooms at the front of the house were wrecked.
At the time Ben and Agnes Smith were entertaining out of state family members at their home. The residence was located at 100 Graham Avenue (only two blocks from the bank), at intersection with their namesake Smith Street. Fortunately, all six had been safely in the dining room — on other side of the house — and were obviously shaken up but otherwise uninjured.
Investigators once again rushed to the scene. Seminole County sheriff McClelland called down to his peers in Orange County for additional support. Sheriff Frank Karel arrived within the hour.
Detectives believed the actual explosion to be the work of a single person, with one set of tracks found leading from the point of detonation. Once again a car was reported speeding away from the area just after the blast.
American Legion members from Sanford were called in to help patrol the streets. Terrified residents welcomed the reassurance. The troops especially focused on guarding the Smith residence and the home of other officers of the failed bank, such as board of directors member B. F. Wheeler.
No further aggressions occurred. But nor was any progress ever made in either of the two (obviously linked) cases.
In the aftermath of the bank failure and two explosions, the country fell further into depression. The truck farming industry of Oviedo was greatly impacted by those economically challenging times. The bank’s assets were later liquidated and eventually depositors received a dividend for pennies on the dollar of their overall balance.
The bombings remain unsolved to this day.
About the Author
Jason Byrne is a lifelong Floridian, originally from Sebring and now living in Winter Springs. He graduated of Florida Southern College in 2002 with a major in journalism and minor in history.
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