The high priests of finance
According to Midwestern historian Lewis Atherton, the banker was the most respected person in the small Midwestern town.
Society’s attitude toward wealth, especially visible wealth, had changed, creating “an acquisitive society [which] emphasized material things, and money thus symbolized basic aims.” Money meant land and livestock to the farmer, goods and a store building to the merchant, and a comfortably furnished home to workers.
The banker’s role in the community was therefore to “manipulate the symbols which identified successful men.” By loaning money for well-planned endeavors, the banker could ease the way for an ambitious young man. However, because he had the power to deny loans or to demand payment of a mortgage, while the banker was respected, he was also feared.
Atherton calls bankers “the high priests of finance,” a label that coincides with the 1882 History of Pettis County’s comment that Sedalia after the Civil War “worshipped the new business gospel.” The banker was expected to be “conservative, wise, and dignified.” Bank employees dressed in conservative, somber clothing, and worked “at a leisurely pace, in keeping with the gravity of the ceremonies”— depositing money, withdrawing money, asking for a loan — occurring there.
Even the bank building expressed the values of dignity and conservatism. Bank buildings often had columns and pediments resembling Greek temples, another reflection of the “new business gospel.” Buildings were impressive, but carefully avoided the extravagant display typical of much 19th century architecture. Instead, the bank might advertise its stability by having its starting capital and surplus printed on the window in gilded letters.
The bankers were generally wealthy men, investors in real estate, railroads and manufacturing venture. They were often stockholders in the bank, advancing the starting capital that formed the basis of the bank.
Sedalia’s First National Bank was the first bank in Sedalia, with a starting capital of $100,000. Cyrus Newkirk and Colonel A. D. Jaynes organized the bank in March 1866. Newkirk was president and Jaynes served as cashier; in 1869, James C. Thompson became assistant cashier.
The bank’s original building was a small, frame structure on South Ohio Avenue just south of Main Street. In 1867, the bank began construction of a new building located at 124 S. Ohio Ave. Completed in 1868, the building cost nearly $30,000.
Like many buildings of the time, it boasted a cast iron front with a doorway on the south end of the front façade, and plate glass storefront windows to the north of the doorway. At the top of the windows, a sign proclaimed the bank’s name. On the second story, were three round-arched windows accented with fanlights and decorative window hoods. An elaborate cornice marked the roofline.
The bank took advantage of the latest technology, using a furnace with registers for heat and having telephones. Its vault used the latest in Yale Time Locks.
By 1881, the bank had prospered, holding $302,275 in discounted notes, $310,004 in deposits, $555,604 in resources, and $70,000 surplus.
Atherton notes that “bearded conservative farmers” served as bank directors, emphasizing the importance of age and experience as well as wealth. In 1882, First National Bank’s directors included William Gentry, important land owner, stock dealer, and farmer; J. R. Barrett, land owner, livestock owner, and dairyman; William Lowry, a large land owner and farmer; and Joseph Higgins, land owner and stock dealer. Only one director, E. A. Phillips, a tie contractor and capitalist, was not a farmer.
The bank’s officers included president Cyrus Newkirk, cashier James C. Thompson, and teller F. H. Guenther. The officers and directors symbolized the power of wealth, and Atherton notes, moved in the best social circles.
First National Bank, its officers, and directors, as Atherton points out bankers stood, “at the center of the small group of local men who manipulated community affairs.”
Even after cashier Thompson bankrupted First National Bank by emptying its vault and fleeing to Mexico in 1894, the remaining bank officers and directors retained their status.
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