Banks Gone-bye: Community banks gone from Morgan County’s municipalities
By Colby Dunn
Photos by Angelina Bellebuono
"We challenge anyone to find a better little bank than what we have here."
Those were the proud words of one former Madisonian writer about the Bank of Rutledge, just a month after it opened in October 1898. That bank's run has continued, albeit in different incarnations, until today. But the little bank that started with one teller, just in time for that year's rainy cotton season, has had its days numbered.
The Rutledge branch of Regions Bank, the final manifestation of the 111-year-old institution, will close its doors on Jan. 29, 2010 as part of a cost-cutting plan by bank heads. It will be the last bank to leave the smaller Morgan County municipalities; banking business will now be firmly centered in Madison.
Rutledge may be the last of the small communities to lose its bank, but it certainly was not the first. There is evidence of banks dotted throughout the county in neighborhoods that have now all but vanished.
When, as they say, cotton was king, Morgan County's thriving agricultural industry made local banks a commercial necessity. Small banks sprung up in once-vibrant locales that, today, are barely hamlets or have faded away altogether.
"Appalachee, Godfrey and Swords had banks," said county planner Danielle Peck, just to name a few. Peck helped compile information for the county's bicentennial and ongoing oral history initiative, and says that there may have even been more that have faded from memory and record after the banking industry in the county fell from its cotton-filled prime.
"There were a lot of communities around the county that kind-of no longer exist as a community," she said, many of which had their own, independent commercial operations when agriculture here was more robust.
The bank in Swords burned, though its safe still remains, its weighty body planted firmly in a local field. Appalachee's one-time bank no longer operates, but still stands, also evidenced by its safe, which is still housed in a building
The Bank of Rutledge was started by local businessman W.P. Wallace in 1898 and flung open its doors for the first time in October of that year, as the Spanish American War was in its final throes, Rutledge saw the worst railroad collision yet recorded by the Georgia Railroad Company on its lines and the Georgia governor had his salary raised to $3,000 per year.
"A city of substantial businessmen situated in a fertile and productive agricultural community, a bank is almost indispensable to the attainment of the best results from the transaction of business," wrote the editors of The Madisonian when the bank was granted a charter in September 1898, and the bank itself continued to be productive for nearly 90 years as the Bank of Rutledge, passed on from Wallace to his descendants.
In 1985, the bank changed hands for the first time.
"It was originally purchased by Allied Bank Shares, which was a small holdings company in Thompson, Ga.," said Kip Herndon, a long-time banker at the Rutledge location who now works for the Bank of Madison. "The name was changed [in 1985] to Bank of Morgan County, that's when we moved into Madison with the Piggly Wiggly bank."
In 1985, the Bank of Rutledge shed its name and broadened its horizons, renaming itself the Bank of Morgan County in July of that year and putting a branch in the new Piggly Wiggly store - Morgan County's first supermarket bank.
In 1996, the bank fell out of local ownership for the last time when Regions Bank, the 16-state conglomerate, bought controlling shares in the Bank of Morgan County.
Morgan County still has a local bank in the Bank of Madison and the Bank of Morgan County is locally-run but is a subsidiary of a Decatur bank. Otherwise, the county has lost its independent local banks, following a national trend that puts big banks in control of a bigger market share than ever before.
A study done earlier this year by Celent, a financial research and consulting firm, found that 5,410 small banks - those with less than $100 million in assets - had failed, faded or been swallowed by bigger banks between 1992 and 2008.
Just 15 years ago, the nation's five biggest banks could claim only 11 percent of the country's deposits; today, Celent estimates that they have their hands on 40 percent.
The decline has been precipitous, due in part to market conditions and partly to legislation, as well. A 2007 paper by economics professor Wenbin Tang published in the Journal of Business and Public Affairs found that the deregulation of banks in 1999 that allowed involvement in both commercial and investment banking was as much a death knell for small banks as economic market factors.
"The FSMA [Financial Services Modernization Act] puts the small banks at a disadvantage, as large banks can benefit from product diversification, synergies, and “too big to fail” guarantees," said Tang. "Small banks do not experience these gains due to their limited capacity."
But whether by the hand of legislators, the failing economy or the changing face of finances, all but a few of Morgan County's local banks have passed.
Bigger banks have come in their place, but of the local lending institutions, all that is left are a few faded newspaper memories and their staunch, ancient safes as reminders of an ended era.