FreedomBank to celebrate 120th anniversary with free community meal

Area origin of eventual merger ... The building pictured above in Waterville once housed the original Farmers & Merchants State Bank, which eventually merged to become part of the 120-year history being celebrated by FreedomBank with a customer appreciation meal Tuesday, September 12 in Waukon. Farmers & Merchants State Bank first opened December 8, 1925 in Waterville before expanding by opening an office in Waukon and moving its charter there as Farmers & Merchants Savings Bank. The merger with FreedomBank took place in 2019. Photo courtesy of FreedomBank.

by Lissa Blake

FreedomBank will celebrate its 120th anniversary of doing business in northeast Iowa with a community meal Tuesday, September 12 in Waukon. A complimentary meal will be offered from 5-7:30 p.m. at the Allamakee County Fairgrounds Pavilion in Waukon.

FreedomBank, with locations in Waukon, Elkader, Monona, Postville and Decorah, traces its roots back to Farmersburg Savings Bank of Farmersburg, which started in 1903. March 12, 1903 the decision was made to build a bank at a cost of $2,852, and this bank building is still standing in Farmersburg over one hundred years later.

Founded to serve the needs of local farmers and local business people, the bank moved its charter to Elkader in 1978 and became Peoples State Bank, in an effort to be more accessible to an expanding customer base. “As a county seat community, Elkader offered more reasons for people to come to the community,” explained FreedomBank President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Kathy Mueller.

Through the years, FreedomBank has been able to adapt and grow in order to meet the changing needs of the banking industry. In 2006, Peoples State Bank, Union State Bank and Postville State Bank all merged to first become FreedomBank, with Farmers and Merchants Savings Bank in Waukon and Decorah also merging into that mix in 2019.

When asked what the biggest challenges have been in the longevity of the bank, Mueller noted the increase in regulations by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Iowa Division of Banking.

“It is their responsibility to ensure that the bank is protecting customer deposits and that consumers are being treated fairly. It takes a lot more ‘man-hours’ for FreedomBank and other banks to meet regulatory expectations now than in the past,” she said.

Mueller said another ongoing challenge for financial institutions is the increase in fraud in the payment system.

“Every day, we watch for unauthorized transactions, financial abuse of elders and other financial scams. When the bank was first chartered, and all the way back to the 1980s, it was commonplace for businesses to have ‘counter checks’ available at the check-out register. To make a purchase, a customer would take a blank check from the appropriate bank and make it out to the business. Unfortunately, there is not that level of trust in our society anymore,” she said.

In addition to increased security, Mueller explained the bank is constantly changing to adapt to advances in technology.

“FreedomBank offers multiple ways for customers to do their banking without physically coming to the bank. We are able to interact through social media to build the FreedomBank brand, even with customers we seldom see in person,” said Mueller.

Mueller added the success of the bank is really due to its loyal customers who have remained with the bank throughout their financial lifetimes.

“It’s not unusual for today’s borrowers to become tomorrow’s depositors. From a management perspective, borrowers and depositors are equally important to the success of the bank,” she shared.

When asked what sets FreedomBank apart from other banks, Mueller said, “We are truly local. Our trade area is contiguous. We have expanded locally and continue to have local management. Our specialties are ag and home lending, which is what our communities need. We use local deposits to fund local loans.”

Looking ahead, Mueller said the bank’s goal “is to continue providing banking services that foster success for our communities, our customers and our employees.”

With regard to the community event scheduled for September 12, Mueller said in the past the bank has tried to hold appreciation events every few years.

Since its merger with Farmers and Merchants Savings Bank in Waukon four years ago, FreedomBank has been planning an event, however, the pandemic postponed those plans until now. Local contributors to the appreciation event will include WW Homestead Dairy, Jet’s Meat Processing, the Allamakee County Pork Producers and the Allamakee County Cattlemen.

Employees from all five FreedomBank locations and members of the Board of Directors have volunteered to help with the event. In addition to a delicious meal, there will be a live remote radio broadcast, an activity table for FreedomSaver Kids and some picnic-themed giveaway items.

“There will be old photos of bank employees for reminiscing and probably some giggles,” concluded Mueller.