A town without a bank
December 3, 2008
Today’s megabanks, as the current financial crisis has shown, maintain only a superficial relationship with borrowers. Bank of America touches one out of every two Americans, but it is a long way from their corporate headquarters in Charlotte to Aspen, a distance both linear and figurative. Not so long ago community banks formed the axis of small-town commerce.
During Aspen’s mining boom years, banks touted their solvency by revealing their capitalization in newspapers. Bank failures were common, so depositors paid close attention to the amount of founding capital. Banks also implied longevity through architectural advertising. Victorian brick and sandstone buildings like the Wheeler Opera House suggested banks would be there “forever.”
Aspen banks’ financial facades dissolved during the panics of the early 1900s. As depositors left town and the mine payrolls that had kept cash flowing diminished, the banks could not withstand the banking crises of their time. By 1905 the Aspen State Bank was the only local bank remaining. Founded by railroad magnate David Moffat in 1898, it boasted $340,000 in deposits. The bank held a high, for its time, capital reserve of $6,000.
The Aspen State Bank did not survive the depression. Aspen found itself without a bank for the first time in its history. Depositors and borrowers banked in Glenwood Springs; some even traveled to Denver. Any town without a bank faced financial failure. Local bankers alone knew which enterprises were worthy and could identify credible creditors. Denver’s bankers were distant and therefore reluctant to bet on Aspen’s future.
Lacking a bank, Aspen created its own credit system. Individual businesses extended credit for everything from coal to groceries. Tom Sardy, who owned Aspen Supply (a general store selling anything anyone needed), the lumberyard and the mortuary served as an unofficial business banker. Many Aspen businesses of the 1940s credited Sardy’s faith in their future for their survival.
My grandfather, as mayor during that period, believed passionately in the importance of community banking. Attracting a bank to Aspen became his highest priority of the early 1940s. He encountered many disappointments. Finally, he found an experienced banker, W. Lucas Woodall, and enticed him to move to Aspen. Along with Dr. Twining and other locals they formed Pitkin County Bank. They located the bank in the Cowenhoven building in an area previously used by a former bank. Woodall, known to locals as “Woody,” managed the bank.
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Most locals remember Woody’s cigars. Like Churchill, he was rarely seen without one. When business was slow he would stand near the bank entrance to talk with passersby, a cigar in one hand while the other clung to his suspenders under his suit coat. One of my early childhood memories is the smell of his cigar. I lived a few doors down from the bank and sped along the sidewalk on my bike. I’m told that I ran into “Woody,” but all I remember is waking to that fragrance as he carried me home.
Pitkin County Bank survived until an ownership change in 1961 renamed it the Bank of Aspen. It moved to Mill Street. At that location it offered Aspen’s first drive-through service and flaunted a ski-up window on Hopkins Street.