Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
CLEWISTON – First Bank is celebrating their 100th anniversary in business this year.
Community members are invited to Customer Appreciation Days at the main office in Clewiston on Sept. 22 and the LaBelle branch on Oct. 19. Both events will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and feature free food and giveaways.
On Nov. 16, the First Bank Centennial Celebration will be held at the Moore Haven Rodeo Grounds from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. The celebration will have food trucks, First Bank merchandise and special guest speaker, former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee. This will be a free event open to the public.
“We are happy this year to celebrate our 100th anniversary, our centennial anniversary,” First Bank President Carey Soud explained in a radio interview on Big Lake Now
earlier this year.
“We are one of the oldest community banks in the State of Florida. To our knowledge there’s three or four banks that have had the privilege in Florida to celebrate 100 years. We have a rich history. We started in Clewiston in 1922.
“The City of Clewiston was named after A.C. Clewis who was also a banker,” he said.
“He had enough wisdom and foresight to know if you are going to start a new town, the best thing you can do is to start a bank there, to fund commerce and industry and real estate development.
“First Bank has been here since 1922, helping the local economy to grow and to thrive. Obviously, it has worked. We’ve both been very successful through the years,” he continued.
“A.C. Clewis’s grandson became the chairman of Florida Banker’s Association. Our current chair, Miller Couse, was chair of the Florida Banker’s Association in 2008. So this small town has had two Florida bankers’ association chairmen over its 100-year history.
“We’ve always had the idea that if you want to borrow money in Hendry County, then we want to be involved in it,” he said.
“We’ve been involved in making people’s dreams come true. Whether it’s financing a car, a home or a business or an education, we want to be part of that legacy.”
“It’s humbling to know the work we do today has a legacy back for 100 years,” said Executive Vice President Andrew Couse . We always joke that both Hendry County and the City were formed in 1023, so we’re older than the city or the county. We’ve been a part of everything that has happened in our communities for those 100 years.
Community banking is important. “We know the people. We know the businesses. We know the industry. A large bank outside the area doesn’t necessarily understand sugar cane farming or vegetable growing, doesn’t understand the machine shop that builds specialty products that service those types of industries.
“We understand them because we are part of the community. We don’t just know the business. We know the people. At the end of the day, you’re not just doing business with a company. There’s a person. It’s a business about relationships," said Couse.
“Our hearts are here,” said Soud. “While we have a rich legacy of 100 years, our focus is on the next 100 years.”
The bank started with a single location in Clewiston in 1922 with about $250,000 in assets. Today the bank has $650 million in assets and seven full service branches, employing more than 100 people.
• The main bank is at 300 E. Sugarland Highway, Clewiston. The bank was originally at Watanabe Hotel. In 1928, it moved to where Brenda’s Place is now located. The bank moved to the current location in 1956. The building renovated in 1976 and again in 2006.
• The 101 S. Berner Road, Clewiston, branch opened in 1996.
• The LaBelle branch, 301 State Road 80, LaBelle, opened in 1981.
• The Fort Myers branch, 11741 Palm Beach Boulevard, Suite 100, Fort Myers, opened in 2007.
• The Glades County branch, 24704 US Hwy. 27, Moore Haven, opened in 2008.
• The Belle Glade branch, 325 S Main Street, Belle Glade, opened in 2016.
• The Immokalee branch, 316 N 15th St., Immokalee, opened in 2018.
Over the years, the bank has been constantly moving forward with new technology. The bank’s first ATM was installed in 1978.
They added mobile banking and online banking in the late 2000s. During covid, First Bank implemented fully digital document submission and signing abilities to get loans to customers without them having to come in.
In September, First Bank added social media pages this month. Future plans call for implementing ITMs, which are like ATMs, but customers can call a teller and speak with them while using it for help or for bank transactions they need a teller to do.
The bank got off to a rocky start in 1922.
According to information supplied by First Bank, Most of the investors who first formed the First Bank of Clewiston didn’t live in the then-new settlement.
The Clewiston subscribers at that time were Captain and Mrs. J. J. O’Brien, who were prime movers in the project and fought for the charter in the fall of 1921 with 19 shares and Marian N. O’Brien and H. D. Stewart with 10 each.
Three West Palm Beach investors in the institution were Alfred H. Wagg, Bert Winters and D. F. Dunkle who had 12 shares each. Jules Burguire of Loxahatchee had six, C. V. Parkinson and R. E. Kurtz, both of Moore Haven, had 10 each. Errol J. Steer, John S. Cottrell, A. W. Fisher, and H. Etherton, all of Moore Haven, and F. A. Forbes of Ritta, had five each; and Maud Wingfield and H. N. James, both of Ritta, had 10 each.
The reasons the West Palm Beach men invested was the bright future envisioned in the area because of the Bryant Sugar Mill and the spectacular land sales in Moore Haven during previous years.
Among the Moore Haven group, Parkinson was a businessman, owner of a store that had recently opened a branch in Clewiston. Kurtz was an attorney who was also investing in land; Steer owned a Moore Haven hardware store and did some farming; Cottrell was the local Ford dealer; Etherton was an American Coast Line conductor who built a service station in Clewiston when the road was built and Fisher was a farmer.
Wingfield was the Ritta postmaster and operated a general store in that area and James was a Ritta farmer. Forbes operated a boat line and farmed in the Ritta area.
The close association of the First Bank of Clewiston with the Exchange National Bank in Tampa is seen in the transfer of original O’Brien stock to A. C. Clewis, J. A. Griffin, C. C. Whitaker and Peter O. Knight, all associated with the Tampa bank. This transfer took place in December less than two months after the First Bank was formed.
Clewis had also financed the railroad into the area, a branch line from Moore Haven to Clewiston, built in 1921.
Moore Haven and Ritta were thriving localities around the lake’s south shore in those days. Capt. and Mrs. O’Brian had been involved in the development of Moore Haven, a town built by James A. Moore of Seattle. Mrs. O’Brien longed to build an entirely new city, to “start from scratch,” and she became entranced with the locality known as San Point, where a high sand ridge jutted into Lake Okeechobee.
She obtained the backing of Clewis and his associates in the Exchange National Bank and they formed a company and purchase land from the South Florida Land Company.
Mrs. O’Brien employed John Nolen of Boston, noted city planner, to design the new town and began the movement to establish a bank in the same breath.
She was successful in both and Nolen’s name is found among the first stockholders in the First Bank of Clewiston.
The First Bank of Clewiston survived some disastrous years in its youth. It was conceived and the planning and paperwork necessary to obtain a charter was completed during 1921 and early 1922 when the area had enjoyed several successive dry years and farming was booming.
Residents were convinced that the “Everglades were drained at last” by the few canals which had been completed. These canals were to provide transportation for crops as well as run off for water into the lake and thence to the ocean or gulf.
But 1922 proved instead to be the beginning of a wet cycle which covered the area with water, making it impossible to harvest the 1922 crops and impossible to even consider planting 1923 crops. Many farmers were unable to pay their debts or finance other ventures. The two Moore Haven banks closed because of general business conditions.
Prospects were dismal and the First Bank of Clewiston was not the flourishing financial institution its stockholders had envisioned. H. D. Stewart, the first cashier, left early 1923 and was succeeded by Henry Hall, an Englishman who had been one of the group Mrs. O’Brien had induced to come to establish the town of Newhall, which never got off the ground. When Hall left after about six months, Tom O’Brien was named cashier. Tom held the position until the O’Brien’s secured the services of Elbert L. Stewart, then assistant cashier in a Dublin, Ga., bank. Stewart arrived in Clewiston in December of 1923.
During this period of tribulations, the bank was forced to borrow money to continue in business. A loan had been arranged in Jacksonville by one of the West Palm Beach stockholders and when the bank again needed a loan for operating funds, the O’Brien’s asked the same West Palm Beach man to arrange another loan. Instead, the man withdrew his own account from the bank.
At some point during these troubled years, the stockholders met and assessed themselves a $25.00 per share to obtain money for the bank to continue operations. They then began to take a keener interest in the day-to-day operations and to exercise more control.
Three directors, C. V. Parkinson, Ralph Kurtz and Sam Cottrell, purchased the majority of stock from the other stockholders, who were probably quite willing to sell since the bank had provided them with plenty of headaches and trouble in its early years.
The bank directors, struggling with their small and troubled institution, developed strong bonds of friendship and their meetings, and those of stockholders were basically enjoyable events. For many years, at the close of their meetings, it was the custom of the directors to adjourn to Parkinson’s store to munch on cheese and crackers before they started their journeys homeward.
Some of the journeys were not easy ones. There were no real roads and the Model T Fords would follow trails through the head-high weeds and sawgrass. During the wet years, these were impassable and the trip for the three Moore Haven directors was made on a handcar on the railroad. Trains could not use the track, which was simply laid on top of sand and muck and the trip, by day or night, was anything but pleasant.
In a later year, when road work was underway, the Moore Haven directors came by car to Liberty Point and walked along the ditch bank to the point where the present railroad is located. Elbert Stewart of Clewiston drove out to this point to pick them up and after the meeting they made the return trip in the same way, walking the mucky ditch bank in the moonlight.
The most enjoyable meeting of the year was the annual stockholder meeting which A. C. Clewis, J. A. Griffin, Peter O. Knight and C. C. Whitaker came from Tampa to attend. They often brought friends or members of their family along, for the trip to the Everglades was considered something of an adventure.