Celebrating 125 years, Century Bank’s history is also history of four generations

Century Bank of the Ozarks is celebrating its 125th anniversary today by sharing free refreshments at all its branches. The bank was founded in 1894 by members of the Harlin family, which still owns the bank today. From left: CEO Chris Harlin and wife Missy, and board chairman John L. Harlin and wife Linda.

This story is adapted from an article published in the July 22, 2009, edition of the Times.

Century Bank of the Ozarks is celebrating its 125th anniversary today by inviting everyone to enjoy refreshments throughout the business day at its locations in Gainesville, Theodosia, Bakersfield and Ava.

The bank, this county’s first, opened as the Bank of Gainesville on July 24, 1894, after its 4,500-pound safe was hauled here from West Plains by Joe Farmer and his impressive draft horses. Jim Harlin and his brother Tan Harlin organized the bank, along with other men including John R. Reed. Jim and Tan were the great-great-uncles of current bank CEO Chris Harlin. Tan Harlin was also the great-grandfather of former U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill.

A third Harlin brother, Johnny, joined the bank two years later, in 1896, the same year he married Clara Layton, who had been the bank’s very first depositor. It isn’t known how much Clara deposited.

The bank was capitalized at $5,000, consisting of $2861.54 in cash and $2,138.46 in personal notes from the incorporators. At the end of the bank’s first official business day, its financial statement boasted $11,663.17 in total resources, including $2,137.46 in “loans and discounts undoubtedly good on personal or collateral security.”


The ‘most beloved’ citizen

Johnny Harlin eventually became bank president in the 1920s. When President Franklin Roosevelt ordered all American banks to close for a “holiday” to reorganize during the Great Depression, Johnny refused to close the Bank of Gainesville until directly ordered to do so in a telegram from Washington. “Before he closed the bank, he made sure all the town’s merchants had enough cash to make it through,” John Harlin told the Times in 2009.

Later, Depression-era bank examiners ordered the bank to charge off what they considered worthless notes. Again, Johnny refused. “We propose to work this out in our own way, and intend to collect the loans you consider worthless, for we have faith in our customers and in the Ozarks,” he replied.

Within three years, 98 percent of the “bad” loans had been fully repaid.

Although best known as a banker, “Uncle Johnny” also held several elected offices and had many other talents as well. “It was very common for Granddad to be at the bank and have someone come in and say, ‘Uncle Johnny, I’ve got a wagonload of stuff out front, and I need your help,’ and Granddad would step outside and conduct the auction,” John said. “It was said that all in one day he could work at the bank, preach a funeral, cry a sale and then go out and shoot a bushel of quail to feed a group he was speaking to that night. It’s hard to describe his impact on Ozark County and this whole region.”

One indication of residents’ respect for Uncle Johnny was that, after his death in 1955, more than 1,500 people attended his funeral. The White River Valley Electric Cooperative newsletter later eulogized him as “the most beloved citizen of Ozark County.”


Hugh Tan and Billye

Clara and Johnny Harlin’s son Hugh Tan became bank president following Johnny’s death. Like his siblings, Hugh had grown up in the bank, beginning with janitorial duties that included cleaning the bank’s cuspidors.

Hugh’s siblings Mearle and Madge also worked in the bank, along with their sister Madge’s husband, E.T. Brown. The other Harlin siblings included John Maxwell; Gertrude, who died at age 5; and Teddie, who died in infancy.

In 1932, Hugh met Billye Key when her family came here from Texas to look at land. It was apparently love at first sight. After Billye returned to Texas, the couple corresponded for two years while Billye finished high school and attended junior college. 

In 1934, Hugh wrote to her, “If I come down there, could we get married?”

The wedding took place on April 1 in Jacksonville, Texas.

Billye joined the bank staff after their two children, John and Sherrill (now Sherrill Hardcastle), were old enough to attend school. Eventually, Billye became vice president and a board member.

“Besides serving as a bank officer, Billye also started the tradition of having the bank’s staff sign greeting cards that she sent out to special customers to commemorate a special event,” said John’s wife, Linda.


John and Linda 

As soon as they were old enough, John and his sister, Sherrill, worked at the bank, especially on the last day of the month, when statements were mailed out. “Even on New Year’s Eve, we would be at the bank until nine or ten o’clock at night, sealing the envelopes,” John said. 

After her marriage in 1958, Sherrill continued working in banking in Kansas City, North Carolina and then Springfield before she and husband Joe Hardcastle settled in the Lebanon area, where they have remained since 1969.

Although John grew up in the bank, he didn’t plan to become a banker. But after a tour with the Air Force, several years of working in broadcasting and then a three-year stint at First National Bank of West Plains, he and his wife, Linda, a Houston, Missouri native, moved back to Gainesville in 1966. Their son Chris was born in 1969.

“It’s interesting,” said John. “I don’t remember Dad and Granddad ever telling me anything about how to do this job. But they were the perfect examples of how it should be done.”

They were always considerate of their customers, he said. “Back then, there were a lot of people who couldn’t read or write,” said John. “But if they came in to do some kind of paperwork, no one ever asked them, ‘Can you write your name?’ Instead, they would be asked, ‘Do you sign?’ And of course everyone could sign in one way or another.”

In 1969, the bank’s 75th anniversary year, it moved to its current location on the northeast corner of the Gainesville square. The new facility was a single-story, 6,600-square-foot building. The 75th anniversary brochure noted that the bank’s resources totaled $8.3 million.

One day in December 1971, Hugh called everyone into his office. “There was no warning. I had no idea what he was going to do,” John said. “When everyone had gathered, Dad said, ‘As of now, John is president of the bank.’ There was a little gasp – it was totally unexpected. Of course, the board had to approve it, but that’s how I became bank president and Dad became chairman of the board.”


Multiple expansions - and a fourth generation

A 2,000-square-foot expansion was completed in 1978, the same year the bank opened a branch office in Theodosia, something previously prohibited by Missouri banking regulations. Another change in regulations, pushed through the Missouri legislature in 1983 by Rep. Garnett Kelly, allowed banks to have two branches if they operated within third- and fourth-class counties with a population between 7,000 and 10,000, John said.

“Missouri had 17 counties that fit that description – but only one that cared,” John said. Kelly’s amendment was specifically aimed at allowing the Bank of Gainesville to open a branch in Bakersfield, giving it “the most far-flung branching empire in the state,” John joked.

In 1992, after graduating from what is now Missouri State University and working three years at Boatmen’s Bank in Springfield and Exchange National Bank in Jefferson City, Chris and his wife, Missy, moved to Gainesville, where he joined the bank as assistance vice president.

Chris’ mother, Linda, joined the bank’s staff in 1994.

Chris and Missy have two daughters, Abbi and Faith. Abbi graduated from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in 2016 and is the lead graphic designer and art director for Naturebacks, an outdoor adventure company in Fayetteville, where she lives. Faith is a sophomore at the University of Arkansas.

In 1994, another major remodeling brought the bank’s structure to 18,000 square feet and added a second story, three drive-through lanes and an ATM machine. That year’s 100th anniversary advertisement offered guests “free rides” in the town’s first elevator.

A year later, the Bank of Gainesville acquired the Douglas County Bank in Ava, and in 1996, the bank’s name changed to Century Bank of the Ozarks.

In 1999, Chris Harlin was named president and CEO of the Century Bank of the Ozarks. Missy joined the bank board in April 2019.

Today, the bank’s assets have grown from its initial 1894 start-up capital of $5,000 to more than $180 million. In 2003, Chris and a group of investors formed Legacy Bank & Trust, which now has seven locations. Together, Century Bank and Legacy Bank & Trust’s assets are close to a half billion dollars.

Another expansion in 2006 added a new, freestanding two-story training and financial services building, including an elevator and a skywalk connecting the addition to the bank’s main building.

John and Linda now are officially retired but continue to serve on the bank boards, and they maintain offices in Century Bank. Linda helps design branch-office decor and landscaping, and John devotes most of his time to community service.

With a fourth Harlin generation now leading the way, Century Bank is entering its 126th year with resources and technology that would have astonished its 1894 founders.  Chris credits the success of the bank to its loyal customers and dedicated staff. 

The future promises even more changes and advances. Yet some things follow a familiar path. When the government offered bailouts to many troubled banks around the country in 2008, Chris Harlin replied in a way that surely would have made his feisty great-granddad Johnny Harlin proud. Thanks but no thanks, he said. Century Bank is in good shape, and it still has faith in its customers and in Ozark County.

Ozark County Times

504 Third Steet
PO Box 188
Gainesville, MO 65655

Phone: (417) 679-4641
Fax: (417) 679-3423