SOURCE: Columbus: Georgia's Fall Line Trading Town by Joseph B. Mahan, 1986.
The First National Bank of Columbus is this city's first nationally chartered financial institution, dating from July 15, 1876. John Rhodes Browne was president when the then-named National Bank of Columbus became operational with $100,000 of capital. Browne grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts, and came to Columbus in 1851. He learned cotton manufacturing in his Uncle Augustus Leonard's mills in New York and came to Georgia to install machinery in the Eagle Factory in Columbus. He worked up to mill superintendent and became a leading businessman in the growing community. He left manufacturing to become president of the Georgia Home Insurance Company. He organized the National Bank of Columbus in 1876 and became its president. In addition to his banking and insurance interests, he was also president of Columbus Manufacturing Company, Swift Manufacturing Company, a director of the Muscogee Mills, Tallassee Falls Manufacturing Company, Hamburger Cotton Mills and was the owner of the Steam Cotton Mills.
Banking during Columbus' first four decades was mainly a private activity of individuals and business firms or was left up to insurance companies. Mergers and growth have marked the progress of the bank, which changed its name to The First National Bank of Columbus on April 1, 1920. The Georgia Home Savings Bank was also in operation at this time, as well as the large and popular Georgia Home Insurance Company. The First National Bank was housed on the first floor of the Georgia Home building, a white cast-iron building, often called the White Bank and the Iron Bank, on the southeast corner of Broadway and Eleventh Streets. This imposing building, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, housed a First National branch after First National moved to the southwest corner of Thirteenth Street at First Avenue. The Georgia Home Savings Bank would later merge with First National in 1943.
The cast iron building was originally built for the Bank of Columbus at a cost of $50,000. The Bank began acquiring the land along Broadway that the building stands on as early as 1856, owning the whole block by 1860. The Bank of Columbus operated in the building between 1860 and 1866, when it appears to have declared bankruptcy. The building was bought at auction in 1869 for $28,000 by the Georgia Home Insurance Company which operated an insurance company and a bank in the building through the 1870s. It was used by a number of banks and owned by the First National Bank of Columbus for many years. Today, it is the home of Hecht Burdeshaw and Iron Bank Coffee.
The First National Bank officers in August 1950 were H. K. Park, president; W. B. Langdon, vice-president, and cashier; W. F. Pearce, vice-president, and Trust Officer. E. H. Paine, cashier, Auto Drive-In Branch; R. H. Calhoun, cashier Fort Benning office; Robt. E. Amon, asst. cashier. Directors: J. S. Burgin, C. C. Colbert, T. C. Hudson, Jas. B. Huff, J. R. Kinnett, E. J. Knight, W. B. Langdon, H. K. Park, W, F. Pearce, R. C. Prather, F. C. Reich, Simon Schwob, Richard P. Spencer, J., L. White, J. Barnett Woodruff, Jas. W. Woodruff, Jr. First National continued its growth by absorbing, on October 24, 1953, the Merchants & Mechanics Bank of Columbus which was chartered as a state bank of Georgia on December 19, 1871. This enabled First National to benefit from the leadership of three generations of bankers in a family named Key. James Biggers Key was the first of his line to become president of the M&M Bank. His son, Jack B. Key, Sr., graduated from the University of Georgia and joined M&M in 1917, succeeding his father as president in 1939. With the 1953 merger, Jack B. Key, Sr., became president of The First National Bank, while Harbin K. Park moved up from this position to that of chairman of the board. W. Ford Pearce was First National's president after the retirement of Jack B. Key, Sr., whose son, James W. "Billy" Key, also served as president before moving up to chairman of the board and passing the duties of president and CEO to Thomas Boyd III in 1980.
Thomas Boyd III (left) and James W. Key (right) in 1980.
When Georgia changed its banking laws to allow bank holding companies in the state, First National moved toward expansion by forming the First South Bankcorp on April 21, 1980. Its first acquisition was the Farmers & Mechanics Bank of Pine Mountain in July 1981. The First National Bank of Columbus acquired Fort Benning National Bank on April 1, 1980, gaining three more branches. Seeking to expand its horizons, holding company management consummated the merger of First South Bankcorp on December 31, 1982, with First Railroad & Banking Company of Georgia in Augusta, which has more than $3.6 billion in assets as Georgia's fourth largest bank holding company.
In the traditionally conservative field of banking, First National's leadership had been imaginative and innovative. The development of First National Square provided strong private-sector support of a general effort of central-city businessmen to revitalize what they identify as uptown Columbus after declines partially due to several major firms moving to outlying shopping centers. First National donated $125,000 in 1984 for scholarships, faculty salary supplements, and facility improvements at Columbus College (now Columbus State University). First National, through its data-processing affiliate, was a founding member of a statewide network of automated teller machines in 1984. With the increasing deregulation of the banking industry, First National moved aggressively to deliver increased services. The First National Bank of Columbus was the first bank in its area to install free-standing automated teller machine kiosks. These were in shopping centers convenient for large numbers of people. The bank also hired Spanish-speaking tellers to accommodate new residents from Latin American countries coming to Fort Benning with the move of the School of the Americas to the nearby military post. The bank encouraged its more than 325 employees to take active roles in community organizations.
In 1985, First National completed a $3.1-million construction program, turning an entire city block into First National Square with its main bank building remodeled and given an entirely new look, and a second building acquired and renovated. The bank replaced its drive-in units with a new eight-window facility nearer Fourteenth Street, enlarged the parking area, and softened it with trees and landscaping. From this base, The First National Bank of Columbus operated its main office, twelve full-service branch banks, and twelve automated teller machine banking locations, with assets exceeding $375 million in 1985. In 1997, the bank reorganized and purchased First Union National Bank of Florida. First National Bank would then change its name to First Union National Bank. In 2004, First Union would change its name again, this time to Wachovia Bank. Wachovia Bank merged with Wells Fargo in 2010.