AUTHOR: EILEEN

BANKING ON IT

List of Milestones

- First National Bank of West Point was founded in 1872 as the G.W. Foster and Company.

- The bank was purchased in 1877 by a group of West Point men who formed the Stockard, Bonner and Company with $22,500.

- In 1882, the officers of the bank and 16 local residents filed a petition to become a national bank. It was approved in 1883 and had total assets of $119,111 the first year as a national bank.

- During its history, the bank, which remained open during the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s, has helped in many achievements of the community, including the diversification of agriculture production from cotton to cattle; bringing to Clay County Swift and Company in 1928; the location of Babcock and Wilcox to Clay County in 1952; and the restoration of the Henry Clay Retirement Community in 1995.

- Today, the First National Bank of West Point is the lead bank in a two-bank holding company with about $110 million in assets. It has three branches, including its latest in a gas station, fast food restaurant combination.

By Eileen Bailey

Daily Journal

WEST POINT - The Great Depression was hard on many. It was hard on families and hard on businesses, and of those businesses, it was hardest on the nation's banks.

Many banks closed their doors, wiping out the savings of depositors if the funds were not insured. One bank that stood strong, however, was the First National Bank of West Point.

During the Depression, the bank's board of directors chairman Arthur Dugan saw no need to close the bank when President Franklin Roosevelt declared a national banking holiday, said Pete Hodo III, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the bank.

The bank, Hodo said, remained financially sound during the Depression, even assisting a bank in Aberdeen to keep it from going under.

After pressure from the federal regulators, Dugan closed the doors but unlocked them minutes later, Hodo said.

The Depression was not the only time the bank stood firm. For the last 125 years, the bank has continued to open its doors to the residents of West Point and Clay County, providing not only services but support for community projects.

First National Bank, the oldest national bank in Mississippi, was founded in 1872 as the G.W. Foster and Company.

The bank, which is believed to be the first to operate in Clay County, was located at the present site of Kellogg Hardware's appliance department on Commerce Street.

This bank was purchased in 1877, and a new bank named the Stockard, Bonner and Company was formed with a capital investment of $22,500.

Bank officers and local residents filed a petition in 1882 with the Comptroller of the Currency to become a national bank. The petition was approved in January 1883, and during that first year as a national bank, assets totaled $119,110.

Today, the two-bank holding company has assets of about $110 million. While some things have changed, such as the appearance of the building and the expansion of services, s one thing has remained the same.

"I think what has kept our bank the way it is is the people we have working here and their sense of community," Hodo said. "We all understand our bank is only as successful as our community is. So we take very seriously our role in the community."

There are 68 employees at the main bank and the three branches. A bank in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is part of the bank's holding company.

Hodo said the bank has been instrumental in many of the most significant achievements of West Point and Clay County.

"Some of these accomplishments include the diversification of agricultural production from cotton to cattle production; the location of Swift and Company to Clay County in 1928; the location of Babcock & Wilcox to Clay County in 1952; the construction of Dugan Memorial Home in 1964; and the restoration of the Henry Clay Retirement Community in 1995, to name a few," he said.

The bank, Hodo said, also has been instrumental in the early successes in such businesses as Bryan Foods, Fisher Marine Inc., Southern Ionics, Royal Trucking Company and Seitz Lumber Company.

Clifton Miller, former president and founder of Fisher Marine, said he and his wife moved to West Point in 1966 to start his company making bass boats and john boats.

"The name is misleading. It should have been called the First National Fisher Marine Company," he said. "They really gave us a wonderful leg up. We could have not grown without their help."

Miller has since sold the company that continues to operate in West Point.

Another longtime customer is Sam Wilhite. The 77-year-old resident of West Point and former president and chairman of the board of the Columbus & Greenville Railway said the bank has been a part of his life since he was a teen. Wilhite said he first borrowed money from the bank when he was 15 or 16 years old.

"They have participated in all of the growth in the community," he said. "They operate with the highest of standards."

Wilhite said the bank also has helped in many community projects, such as the first community swimming pool.

The bank also has contributed to different community causes and organizations, Hodo said.

Being a part of the community is something the bank hopes to continues through the years.

"We are going to do what is best for our shareholders long-term, and we are going to be sure to take care what we've got, but at the same time will be receptive to growing our banks through acquisitions as well," Hodo said.

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