The Geo. D. Warthen Bank is proud to announce the marking of its 150th anniversary this year, celebrating the honor of being Georgia's oldest bank. With a storied past, the bank has managed through times of prosperity and times of hardship with its history shaping its present and future.
One must reflect on the status of our country and state 150 years ago to truly appreciate the founding of a bank in Georgia's post-Civil War era when financial institutions were in dire straits. After General William T. Sherman's march through the state, the capital in Georgia's banks shrank from $70 million to $44 million, and the Controller-General's report for 1865 stated, "There have been no bank dividends this year." "The banks in Georgia that weathered the Civil War can be counted on the fingers of one hand without exhausting all the fingers," wrote a historian published in To Wield a Mighty Influence, The Story of Banking in Georgia, published by the Georgia Banker's Associations. The banks of Atlanta, Savannah and Augusta virtually disappeared. Nothing survived past April 1865.
The Geo. D. Warthen's Bank history started when Geo. D. Warthen returned home from the Civil War. According to From Cotton to Kaolin, A History of Washington County Georgia 1784-1989, the county's outlook was bleak; however, there was a sustaining faith that prosperity would return, and indeed it did. Warthen entered into a business partnership with a relative, Jeff A. Irwin, Sr, opening a mercantile business in downtown Sandersville on West Haynes Street.
In 1871, a rear corner of the building was partitioned off and the two businessmen started a private bank under the name of Warthen & Irwin Bankers. Private banks - those without state or national charters - were often opened during this time to provide private loans and mortgages to citizens and farmers. They were instrumental with putting Georgia back together after the devastating Civil War. Warthen and Irwin backed new businesses, financed crops and became involved in civic efforts.
The Geo. D. Warthen Bank was founded January 1, 1871. During this time, the population of Washington County was 15,842 and the average value of land was $3.70 per acre. Cotton crops, hay and peach farming were prosperous with little attention being paid to an article in an 1874 Sandersville Herald, describing a local mineral as having "multitudinous uses".
By 1906, three additional banks had opened in Sandersville, Cohen National Bank, First National Bank and Citizens Bank. The stock market crash in 1929 led to a national banking crisis in which these banks failed.
For 44 years, the Warthen & Irwin Bank served the Washington County area, operating until 1915, when Irwin withdrew from the partnership. Subsequently, Warthen operated under the name of The Geo. D. Warthen Bank as a private bank until his death in 1927.
Early in 1928, a state banking charter was obtained, and the bank continued to operate as The Geo. D. Warthen Bank.
In 1932, a national charter was obtained, and the bank's name became The Geo. D. Warthen National Bank. The bank continued to operate as a national bank until the mid-1950s, when the national charter was surrendered, and a new state charter obtained. The bank has operated as a state chartered bank since that time.
The Geo. D. Warthen Bank ownership has been maintained by members of the Irwin family and managed with an impressive leadership of only four presidents in 150 years.
History of Founder and Presidents
1871 – 1927: Geo. D. Warthen, Founder and Owner; Chris Irwin III's great, great uncle
1928 – 1973: C. Findlay Irwin, Sr.
1973 – 1986: Richard S. Irwin
1986 – 2000: Chris Findlay Irwin III
2001 – present: Kenneth A. Bibb
Currently, Chris F. Irwin III serves as the Chief Executive Officer. Irwin began his career at the bank as a young boy working summers in high school and anytime he would come home from college. He has experienced many changes in banking with the most significant being in technology. "I remember completing general ledgers, posting and filing checks by hand, staying until 7:00 pm many evenings until all balances were obtained," said Irwin.
Irwin's stories from his banking legacy are full of history, humor and personality traits of his ancestors. "We were told growing up that when you walked into the bank and Granddaddy's cigar smoke was going up, you could get your money, but if it was going down, you may need to come back another day", laughed Irwin.
Irwin's leadership has focused on the mission of which the bank was founded. "Since its inception, our bank has always upheld its trademark as being courteous and conservative," says Irwin. "Throughout our 150-year history, we have understood the value of strong customer relationships and we continuously strive to maintain those relationships through multi-generations. Focusing on our customers and community will always be our foundation, but you don't make it to 150 years without a willingness to embrace new technology and products. Community banking, when done right, isn't old-fashioned. It's all about placing our focus on the people - our customers and employees - above all else. It was our way of life back when the bank was founded and continues today."
As Irwin transitioned to become the CEO, he hired Kenneth A. Bibb as the 4th president of the bank. Bibb's history in banking started in Georgia in 1982 after graduating from the University of Tennessee with a degree in finance. His work with Bank South brought him to Washington County in 1994. He started as President of The Geo. D Warthen Bank in 2001.
Bibb's banking experience combined with Irwin's long family banking history and deep roots in the community have been a winning combination for banking in the 21st century.
"The banking industry has changed exponentially over the years," said Bibb, "but our core values have not. As a community bank, the flexibility to customize our services to match the needs of our community, while also supporting our schools and area projects and growth, has served us well. We realize that bigger isn't necessarily better and knowing our customers by name and looking at their individual character and personal qualifications rather than just a credit score is the beauty of community banking."
The Geo. D. is proud of its employees and its record of employees with longstanding years of service. "The family relationship we have with our employees has been the key to forming deeper relationships with our customers," added Bibb. "A bank will only be as strong as the employees chosen to service the customers. They are our most valuable assets."
The Geo. D. Warthen Bank has grown to its current asset level of $217 million and continues to uphold its mission as being courteous and conservative while also maintaining the reputation as a leading business and trusted resource in our county and surrounding area.
The Geo. D. Warthen Bank is located at 216 North Harris Street, its home since 1962. The bank's board of directors are William F. Murphy, Clarke C. Avant, Keenan R. Howard, Chris F. Irwin III, and Kenneth A. Bibb.
Artist and bank employee Brian Moncus designed the 150-year anniversary logo for the bank’s celebration.
Geo. D. Warthen, Founder/Owner opened a private bank in the back corner of his mercantile business in downtown Sandersville in 1871, leading the bank until 1928. His successor, C. Findlay Irwin, (left) was president from 1928 to 1973. Pictured right is D.F. Wilt.
Bank employees posting accounts in early 1900s.
The employees of The Geo. D. Warthen Bank celebrate 150 years of community banking!
The Geo. D. Warthen Bank is currently led by (left) Kenneth A. Bibb, the 4th president of the bank’s 150-year history and Chris Irwin III, CEO.
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