Vol. VII, No. 3, Spring 1994



The Closing of the Fairburg Bank

by Donald R. Holliday




This is a true story. Only the names are changed.

As the first facts of it are remembered, the story of the Fairburg Bank's closing is simple enough. Archer McMillan was the banker. Descended from one of the old farm families, a good family, he was a neighbor and kin of neighbors. Archer McMillan was an honest man, honest and trusted enough most people doubted the first rumors, in 1931, that the bank was failing. In 1932, the bank was ordered locked up by two men from the county seat. They were hired by the federal government, but no one remembers what branch of government. When the bank was locked up, John Frazier, a descendant of one of the old farm families, a good family, a neighbor and kin of neighbors, went to the bank with his rifle and forced a bank employee to unlock the doors. At the point of his rifle, he withdrew exactly the amount he had deposited. Lena Oberlander, too, asked for her money and was refused. "She carried a great old big heavy purse, and she nearly beat the cashier to death with it, and I believe he gave her her money," Otis Patton recalled. Other depositors were less lucky, or forceful. Few received more than a small percentage of their money. Broke, the bank closed forever.

But this story has a past. That's one of the complications of the first simple facts.

In Fairburg, a warm and prosperous little farm town where the land was good, if rocky, by hard work and hard thrift the people had lived well. With their hands they had cleared the land of trees and carried the rocks from the fields every time the plow turned up a new layer. Their corn thrived, and they traded part of the grain and milled part of it for their meal and distilled part of it for their spirit. They fed some of the grain and the fodder to their milk cows. Then they shoveled out their barns and returned the manure to the fields so new crops would thrive.

Trails to market towns developed into roads and railroads, which made it possible for Fairburgians to sell produce they did not need for their own use. With the money they got for the corn and cream and other things they sold, they bought shoes for themselves and their horses, new overalls, cloth for dresses and shirts. Sometimes they had to buy a coffin for an old one whose hands had picked too many rocks, or for a strong man who had been kicked in the head by a mule, or for a baby. But each year they saved a little, against hard times. Then Archer McMillan opened a bank, and the people took their hard-won money out of the jar in the cistern or the hole in the field or from under their feather bed and deposited it in the bank.

In the autumn of 1929 the American stock market crashed in New York and sent shock waves across the land that, in a year or two, reached Fairburg. Around the land, banks failed and federal men come and locked bank doors. Then the people couldn't get their money. In some towns, people heard and passed on rumors about their banks. Sometimes, because of the rumors, the federal men locked the doors of banks that were solvent, but the people didn't know that. They grew suspicious, then frightened. They knew only that the years of hard work of their grandparents and fathers and mothers they would have to do all over again on top of their own.

This happened in Fairburg.

When the rumors began in Fairburg and waxed strong and the bank was locked up in 1932, most people trusted in Archer McMillan and the Fairburg Bank. No McMillan had ever taken anything not his. Others believed Archer McMillan had become too greedy and had taken their money. A very few, wise in the ways of money that was only paper, believed McMillan and his bank were the victims of the national economic collapse. Almost all believed that John Frazier, in taking his own, had taken more than his share. In time, the fact that Archer McMillan's fortunes seemed not to have been broken by the closing of his bank fed the bitterness of those who first believed he had taken their money. The fact also caused many of those who first trusted Archer McMillan to join the disbelievers. Their bitterness was doubled by their recriminations against themselves for having, at first, trusted their friend and neighbor.

So the simple first facts of the bank's closing were complicated by the times--both the past and the national economic present of Archer McMillan's bank. The times would not let the facts remain simple. Had the national economy recovered before the farmers of Fairburg wore out their horses' shoes and harness collars, before they needed their trace chains replaced and rivets for hoes and single trees and double trees, before they wore out their own shoes and overalls and dresses, and before they exhausted local credit, the first budding spring and good harvest might have written an early end to the story. They could have survived easily, even thrived, for a year--for two years, less easily. They would have butchered their hogs and cured their hams and bacons and made their sausages and canned and dried their beans and greens and hilled out their Irish and sweet potatoes and carrots and turnips and milled and marketed their corn and wheat and sorghum and looked in full hope toward a new spring. But the national economy did not recover for many years, at least partly because the future of the farmers of Fairburg and much of the nation was to be blasted by successive years of devastating drought.

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1932 went its way and turned into 1933. The Bateses and Fraziers and Pattons and Sullingers and Stubblefields and Williamses and all the others tilled their fields and planted seed bought on credit and dressed their fields and gardens. The rains came sparingly. The seeds germinated and sprouted and the farmers laid by their corn and waited for rain. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky through June. By the end of June, the corn and wheat had struggled to half growth when the grasshoppers attacked. By the end of July, the crops had withered and dried and, rustled by the dry wind, whispered arid dreams and mean thoughts to the farmers of Fairburg. They gathered the few nubbins of corn and wheat for meal and animal feed. "We had that fifteen acres there east of the big timber in corn," Otis Patton remembered, "and it was just about shoulder high when the grasshoppers hit it so hard they were about to eat it up. We got bags of sawdust oozing with arsenic from the government office in Ridgeway and I scattered it on the field with a big spoon. The next day, the ground was thick with a layer of dead grasshoppers. We hired Estol Nevins to cut it with a corn knife and shock it in the field, and it was so hot and dry he had to cut it at night, by moonlight. It didn't make much, but we put it up for winter feed."

There was no cash crop. Early garden stuff--potatoes, cabbage, onions, peas--planted in the chill of late February and early March produced tolerably, but garden stuff planted late, after frost, withered with the field crops and produced the sorriest of sustenance. Farmers, townspeople too, hunted and gathered more wild game and greens and fruit. In July turnips and sorghum cane failed to sprout for lack of moisture. To the people of Fairburg, the Fairburg Bank's failure seemed more critical now, Archer McMillan still less neighbor, his apparent comparative prosperity more suspicious. John Frazier, on the other hand, had become wiser.

Meanwhile, the national economy did not improve.

With no rain until November, 1933 provided poor prospects for 1934, but it came anyway. The local feed and seed and hardware stores, stretching to the limit, extended credit again for most farmers, the best ones. Some of those whose credit was cut off settled into pure subsistence--bare survival. Others packed up and left, for some job somewhere someone had talked about. The season was worse than 1933. Bitterly, the people remembered those dollars they had lost to Archer McMillan's bank. 1935 came and went, worse than 1934. Fewer farmers got credit. More turned back their calendars to their grandfathers' hard subsistence. More left. The harder times got, and they kept getting harder until 1938, the more Archer McMillan's reputation shrunk. John Frazier's only grew in stature.

By 1938 the drought eased. In one season good rains brought the earth back to original vigor. Only grudgingly, almost imperceptibly, a cell at a time, did the drought relax its grip on the seared minds of the people. Only years of good seasons could refresh that. By then, Archer McMillan and his family were regarded with general disdain around Fairburg. The name evoked deep suspicion or bitter resentment in the minds of the people of Fairburg, who themselves were changed forever. Otis Patton, a boy of eleven when the Fairburg Bank was locked up, said, "The McMillans are just plain old greedy." His wife, Esther, a girl of six when the bank was closed, described years of eating corn and wheat, wheat and corn--boiled wheat, boiled wheat pudding, wheat mush, cornmeal mush, corn cakes, corn bread, hominy, hominy grits. She declared that she had determined one thing during the depression and drought, that she would do everything earthly possible never to be hungry again.

The decades following the depression and drought of the 1930s have brought economic good to Fairburgians. There have been other droughts, one severe, three years long, and there have been recessions, but never since has it been impossible, or even difficult, for Esther Patton to load her table to groaning with meats and vegetables and desserts.

Sixty-two years have come and gone since the lock-up of the Fairburg Bank. Feelings are still strong. Archer McMillan's grandson, a man of seventy or so years, rises in instant anger to defend his grandfather at my first mention of the story. He is adamant in his belief that his grandfather never did anything wrong. Few Fairburgians now agree with him. One of my brokers to the past, born five years after the closing of the bank, looks to see whose relative might be listening, before telling me that John Frazier's son "lives right over here by Stoneton." His tone and manner suggest pride in living so close to the son of such a hero as John Frazier. Otis Patton has lived his sev-enty-four years with his face almost perpetually adorned with a boyish grin. He grows agitated, his hands clench and reclench, his grin twists into a grimace as he wrests from his mind the strongest language he can use and condemns the McMillans as "just plain greedy."

For Fairburgians, this is a story of pain. Not a sudden, stabbing pain. This is the pain that claims a man, a family, a whole town, and won't let go until time has erased from living memory the memories of many generations--the pain of suspicion, distrust, and greed.

Only little children know how to cure it.

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