American Trust – Whiting’s Slovak Bank
by Gayle Faulkner Kosalko July 2019
It was known affectionately as the "Slovak Bank." While the beautiful building still graces 119th Street, American Trust Bank no longer exists in Whiting. In 2010 Horizon Bank bought the bank. So it's very important now to trace its roots and its history and what was it that made American Trust & Savings Bank such an important part of Whiting's growth.
On August 20, 1920, President Michael Kozacik, Sr., pulled out his key, unlocked the door and welcomed the first customer of the American Trust & Savings Bank. With $50,000 in capital and a State Charter, the bank was open for business at 1324-119th Street in the Slovak Dom. The City of Whiting was just 30 years old. Surrounded by man-made mountains of industry and fields of gas and oil tanks, jobs were plentiful. Whiting prospered and so did American Trust & Savings Bank.
With so many folks working for Standard Oil and other local industries, the financial scene was good for yet, another bank. There were already four other banking institutions such as State Bank of Whiting, the First Bank of Whiting, the Central State Bank and Liberty Savings.
"Now The First Bank of Whiting (Centier) was known as 'Schrage's Bank;' the State Bank of Whiting was the 'Standard Oil Bank' because they had most of Standard Oil's accounts and Liberty was known as 'Chilla's Bank,' " explained American Trust & Savings last Bank President Phil Grenchik. "We were called the 'Slovak Bank' probably because many of the bank workers including my Dad and my brother Joe spoke Slovak or perhaps because the bank's second home started across the street in the lower floor of the Slovak Dom."
There was an empty lot across the street on the corner of LaPorte and 119th Street – (1329-119th Street) . As the bank's business grew, they felt the need for expansion. Soon they built their brand new bank on that corner where the building still stands today. From the very beginning, the bank had an insurance division. And since banks like State Bank had its headquarters located out of town, it was a plus for American Trust who could get loan approvals done immediately for local citizens. So business boomed.
Now while the bank was being run by Kozacik, another little business in town was being run by Joseph Grenchik. It was a grocery store called Grenchik's Goldmine Grocery. Joseph had come here from a little village in Austria Hungary called Pribis. Like many others, he left the old country because of the political and religious oppression of the times. He was just 16.
He soon married Theresa Kovacik and the two had six children: Joe (who would later be Mayor) Norb (who would become the bank's President) Raymond, Phil, Tom and Dolores (Smolen). It was in 1940 that Joseph took over the ownership of American Trust.
"And that's where nepotism started," Phil said wryly. "He bought it for his family so his kids would all have jobs."
In addition to his own brothers and sisters, Phil said that his mother's brother Steve Kovacik and her sister Mary Lawler all worked there too at some point.
Now Phil himself had a number of jobs throughout the years. He made chocolate milk at Whiting's National Dairy. He stocked shelves and delivered groceries for Hyduke's grocery store. He set pins at the Community Center and even pushed a broom at the Lakeview Beacon.
"That was a newspaper printed in Gary," he said. "That's where I learned the two letter word for crossword puzzles - en - it's a printer's measure."
One of his first job experiences at the bank, though, was less than exciting.
"One day my father woke me up and said that the janitor Charlie Kaduk had quit and that he needed me and my brother Norb to get up and go clean the bank," Phil said. "Since I was the youngest, I got to clean the spittoons."
But after college and the service, he too joined the family in the family business in 1958. He himself would become the president in 1989 when his brother Norb retired.
In the early days, the bank only occupied the main floor.
"Andrew Kozacik the lawyer, Billy Joyce a beautician and Dr. Cadell were upstairs," he explained. "The back of the main floor (which would become the bank's travel agency for many years) was a Jewish Social Club where they'd meet and play cards."
Now the "Slovak bank" had special services for their clients who wished to send money "home." Their customers would deposit their money and the bank had a voucher with a stamp that said "payable to the Bank of Bratislava." People couldn't send cash back to the old country because of the Iron Curtain but they could send this stamped voucher.
"Then in Slovakia the people could take the voucher and redeem it for food or clothing or even automobiles over there," he said.
In those days, bankers truly kept "bankers’ hours" with banks closing around 2:00 so that they would have time to balance out their books. They had to manually calculate people's interest daily!
"And some days we used to have beach parties when we closed in the afternoon," Phil said. "We'd say grab a rake and get ready for the beach."
The bank also had "early" branches to serve the people who worked at the refinery and other industries.
"The branches were taverns outside Standard, Amaizo, Sinclair, Youngstown, and Blow Knox," he said.
"The tavern owners would come in for a certain amount of cash and then they'd cash the checks for their patrons. When an owner would run out of cash, he would bring in his endorsed checks for more cash."
Now more conventional branches came about when AT&S opened its lakefront location in 1991 with a drive up and an ATM machine. This first branch office was located where Margaret's Geneva House had been. Four years later it acquired Peerson & Co. Investment Services housed at that branch and then in 1996 they opened up a Crown Point Branch.
Naturally the look of the bank has changed over the years. Phil remembers the bank's original huge glass globes outside the building and when the bank had a night deposit on the front of building which was considered very modern for its time.
"We wanted to bring in this giant new neon sign for the front," he laughed. "So Joe and Norb picked this sign up and my dad didn't want any part of it so they arranged for him to go on vacation and while he was gone, they replaced the old one with it."
In the late 1940’s they did away with the old tellers' cages. And Phil said that if you look at photos from back then, you realize that all the tellers were men. Today they're all women.
"Prior to the 1940's when they had the old kind of teller cages, there were a lot of bank robberies around the country so the government issued weapons to banks," he said. "We had a .38 caliber revolver and it was kept in the drawer of the first teller. Before that Dad kept it in his desk drawer."
I think it's safe to say that American Trust has always been a different kind of bank...one with a distinct sense of humor. At one point in the 1950's they had a boat show...in the lobby...with three boats! Naturally all the tellers wore captains’ hats.
At their lakefront branch when they were redoing their drive thru, they had tellers on roller blades who'd roll over to the waiting cars, wearing aprons full of money and deposit blanks. And what would a Pierogi Fest parade be without their wonderfully wacky entries that were always slyly clever. Their giant duck mascot, I.B. Webster (which stands for Internet banking website) became a familiar character taking part in all kinds of city events
As he talked about all the great remembrances he had of his family's banking institution, Phil said that one of the things he is most proud of has been the bank's personal contact with its many faithful customers. To sum up almost 90 years of American Trust & Savings Bank's importance to the community, he simply added, "I think we left our mark."