Bath bank's 1st customer gets nod, 160 years later

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BATH — One August day in 1852, when Millard Fillmore was president, there were just 31 states and the Civil War was nine years away, Francis B. Swift opened a bank account.

The Bath man’s signature, one of many in a well-preserved ledger in a Bath Savings Institution vault, identifies him as the bank’s first customer. One hundred sixty years later, the 105 Front St. landmark is celebrating its anniversary, with an appreciative nod to Swift.

Names like Morse, Sewall and Hyde, which resonate with Bath’s 19th century political and ship-building scene, also grace the bank’s historic documents.

“It’s really incredible to be able to just go in the basement of this bank, and haul out the book with the first customer’s writing,” Barbara Gaul, vice president of marketing for the bank, said last week.

She said the idea to identify and showcase the institution’s first customer was suggested during planning for a TV commercial about the bank’s anniversary. Gaul and Glenn Hutchinson, the bank president and chief executive, went to work in the vault, and after about a half hour they hit pay-dirt.

Bath Savings was incorporated as a state-chartered mutual savings bank on April 19, 1852, although no accounts were opened until August. It is Maine’s third oldest bank.

By the end of its first year, the bank had $16,000 in deposits and had paid its depositors $29 in interest. Since Bath had a booming shipping industry, the bank financed shipyards and ships, along with homes.

“It is a mission here to continue to invest locally,” Gaul said. “… We all talk about the economy, and keeping our local economy strong. And there’s no better way to do it than to invest locally.”

The bank has been on Front Street from the beginning – first in an upstairs room in a wooden building, and into the Hyde Block, its current location, in 1872. The bank purchased the entire building in 1910, and an adjoining building was added in 1997, along with a parking garage and operations center.

The bank has also expanded throughout the state. It opened its second branch, in Damariscotta, in 1969, and this year’s South Portland branch brings the number to nine.

Gaul noted that 2012 is a big anniversary year for Maine companies, pointing out that it is L.L. Bean’s 100th and the Bath-based Maine Maritime Museum’s 50th. She said she does not think Bath Savings will do anything major to celebrate, but there will be commercials, and a lobby display case is being built to house some of the bank’s historic items.

The display will start with the 1852 ledger, a fitting beginning for the bank’s first customer.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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Bath Savings Institution has been on Front Street in Bath for 160 years.

Francis B. Swift was Bath Savings Institution’s first customer, as shown by his signature in this 1852 ledger.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.