The Old Bank: An Insider’s View

On July 2, 1831, Rochester grocer Harmon Taylor deposited $13 in the newly opened Rochester Savings Bank, becoming the bank’s first customer. The bank had received its charter three months earlier, becoming the sixth savings bank in New York State. It would weather at least three financial panics and the Great Depression before changes in the U.S. banking system led to its merger with another savings bank in 1983 and eventual absorption into what is today Citizens Bank.

877-1112IMRRH_JAN_2013_8x10_2.inddOn Sunday, January 20, former bank trustee Jim Duffus will give the first lecture in the library’s 2013 Rochester’s Rich History series. His talk, based on his 2010 book of the same title, The Old Bank: The Rochester Savings Bank and its Presidents and Trustees from 1831 to 1983, will explore the relationship between the bank and the community it served.

For many, banking history might seem like a bore, but Duffus’ book – and I expect his talk – is light on financial details and heavy on personality, making it light and interesting. By focusing on the lives of the bank’s presidents and trustees, rather than on the business of banking, Duffus is able to show how interconnected the bank and its leaders were to the broader Rochester community. RSB’s leaders were instrumental in the development of many of Rochester’s most significant and enduring businesses and community organizations, as members of their boards, donors, and supporters. Many were also political leaders, serving as Rochester mayor and holding positions in state and federal government.

Duffus takes a fairly objective approach to his subject matter, yet his book is deeply personal, written by a man whose longstanding commitment to the bank is clear. He adds personal reflection at several places throughout the book about his own relationship with and feelings about fellow board members. For example, he recalls being “flabbergasted” when he was invited to join the board in 1960, becoming the youngest trustee in the bank’s history, and notes that he was “awed by Joe Wilson.” This personalizes the account, and I suspect Duffus’ personal experiences will make for an interesting discussion on Sunday.

One thing in particular that struck me in reading Duffus’ book and that I hope he will address in his talk is the sense that the bank operated through much of its history as a “good ole [white] boys club.” While this certainly is not surprising for an institution of this type operating during this time period, some of the stories that Duffus shares in the book really help to bring home a sense of what it might have been like to have been in the board room, surrounded by swirling cigar smoke, as John H. (Jack) Castle broke the silence with which his fellow trustees had met their president’s suggestion that they appoint a woman to join them at the table. If that were to happen, Castle stated, he would “be unable to properly express himself at meetings” (77). It likely also would have disrupted the “annual all-male, black-tie trustees dinner” (66).

Apparently, the rest of the board agreed with Castle, as it was a few more years before Dr. Alice Foley was invited to join the board in 1964 or 1965, becoming the first female bank trustee not only at RSB but in all of Rochester. Only three other women served ever as RSB trustees: Dr. Francena L. Miller, Susan S. Robfogel, and Jessica (Judy) Weis Warren.

In addition to providing compelling glimpses into the bank’s backroom dealings, Duffus’ book serves as a useful reference by providing short biographies of many of the longest-serving and most influential bank’s presidents and trustees, made easy to locate by the book’s index. Also helpful are the addendum, which include a timeline of the bank’s history, as well as a comprehensive list of all of the trustees and presidents of the bank, including those who were not mentioned in the text of the book.

I hope you’ll join us for Mr. Duffus’ talk on Sunday from 2 to 3 p.m. January 20, 2013, in the Rundel Auditorium, 3rd floor, Rundel Memorial Building, 115 South Ave., Rochester. Remember that parking is free for library patrons in the Court Street Garage on Sundays!

If you can’t be there Sunday, The Old Bank: The Rochester Savings Bank and its Presidents and Trustees from 1831 to 1983 (108 pp.) is available for review in the Local History & Genealogy Division (reference only) or for check out from the Business Division.

Christine L. Ridarsky, Historical Services Consultant

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Published in: on January 18, 2013 at 4:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

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