Anchored in Fayetteville’s Historic Square stand two buildings over a century old, edifices which have seen millions of dollars funnel through their walls. The Bank of Fayetteville is located in a building in the city’s square, across the street from the Old Bank of Fayetteville, which is located in a building that is just as historic.
In this special banking edition of Digs of the Deal, we’ll be taking a closer look at the history of both banks.
But this story has an unlikely beginning: It starts with a tornado.
The city of Fayetteville was founded in 1828, incorporated into Arkansas with the state’s founding in 1836 and recharted in 1867.
A gem in the northwest corner of the state, Fayetteville sprang up as a testament to the growth in the area and the abundance of business dealings with other states not far across the border.
The federal census records from 1880 show that Fayetteville’s population had increased a whopping 87% since the last census ten years prior. Fayetteville had everything that a modern city at that time could want, from a university to banks to churches and hotels. The city was growing and thriving, as were its amenities.
Then, in 1881, tragedy struck.
What the Fayetteville historical record describes as a “cyclone” touched down in Fayetteville’s square, the heart of the city. The square and all of its metropolitan buildings, in addition to six decades of work, were destroyed overnight.
The city of Fayetteville had reached a fork in the road. The residents could relocate, or merge with another town. They could all go their separate ways entirely, fleeing to another city, or even to Oklahoma or Missouri.
But the citizens of Fayetteville dug their heels in and decided to rebuild the town square and the surrounding property and business sector.
As reconstruction in the area was finally finished in 1888, the Old Bank of Fayetteville was established with Judge Lafayette Gregg as President. However, the bank would not be associated with the Eason Building until one year later, when construction on it commenced. Unfortunately, neither the architect nor the builder is known.
Gregg is one of the more enigmatic figures in Arkansas’s history. A member of one of Northwest Arkansas’s pioneering families, he seemed to be involved in nearly every major Arkansas event that occurred during his lifetime. He was an instrumental figure in the location of Arkansas Industrial University – which would later become the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Additionally, he held many impressive titles, such as banker, lawyer, state representative, Civil War veteran and Arkansas Supreme Court justice. When he died, Gregg was still serving The Natural State, helping prepare the state’s exhibition for the 1893 World’s Fair.
Gregg further served as an associate justice in the state’s Supreme Court until 1874. In 1889, Gregg ran as the Republican candidate for governor, but lost to incumbent Simon P. Hughes Jr. Gregg returned to a private life when he became the president of the Bank of Fayetteville. On Oct. 21, 1891, he was named chair of the state banking association.
Sometimes called the Eason Building, the Old Bank of Fayetteville is found in the northwest corner of the city’s Historic Square. The building serves as a textbook example of both the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles of architecture that characterized many late 19th century bank and commercial buildings.
In 1905, the Old Bank of Fayetteville received a national charter. Just three years later, it merged with First National Bank, which had been established the previous year in Fayetteville on Aug. 4. An individual named Samuel Pickney Pittman was the bank’s President.
After fighting for the Confederate Army in the Civil War, Pittman had returned to farming and animal husbandry, also serving as a deputy sheriff in Washington County. Pittman gave up farming life in 1882 and decided to become a businessman in Fayetteville, where he quickly became one of Washington County’s leading citizens. Additionally, he was a staunch advocate of civic expansion, prosperity and educational progress for the state’s northwestern communities. It was during his tenure as a businessman that Pittman served as one of the first directors of the Washington County Bank and assumed its role of president in 1888 – before becoming president during the Old Bank of Fayetteville/First National Bank merger. Additionally, Pittman was an outspoken advocate for educational expansion in Northwest Arkansas. He was appointed to the board of trustees for the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville by the Arkansas General Assembly in 1876, a role he sustained until 1882.
Banking throughout Fayetteville proceeded as usual for several decades until the Great Depression. This devastating chapter in history led to unprecedented financial reorganization, as the Old Bank of Fayetteville merged with Citizens Bank, which was located on Block Avenue.
During the 1950s, the Eason Building that housed the Old Bank of Fayetteville became home to many businesses that rented office space and would remain that way for decades to come. The building had reached a state of disrepair by the second half of the 20th century, and it was nearly demolished in the 1980s when the City of Fayetteville condemned the property. Fortunately, the Eason Building was saved thanks to the efforts of preservationists and developers.
In 1993, architect Bob H. Kelly purchased the dilapidated building and began a three-year rehabilitation project. The building was placed onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, 101 years after its original construction. Kelly, who went on to be the founding principal of Core Architects, completed the project prior to the formation of the architectural firm. The project would eventually receive the Excellence in Restoration Award from the Washington County Historical Foundation. Today, Core Architects operates its office on the second floor of the building.
The current Bank of Fayetteville (not affiliated with the Old Bank of Fayetteville) is located across the street and was founded in 1980, where it was housed in the Lewis Brothers Building.
The Lewis Brothers Building has a similarly historic legacy. Located directly south of the Old Bank Of Fayetteville Building, it was constructed in 1908. Built in the Queen Anne and Classic revival styles, the building housed the W.T. Farrar Hardware Store, which started working out of the building in 1912 and operated for 75 years.
The building was sold to the five Lewis brothers and became Lewis Brothers Hardware. In 1986 the hardware store closed, and the following year, John Lewis established the Bank of Fayetteville in its place. In 1987, the Lewis Brothers Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In the early 1900s, Farrar was one of the leading merchants in Fayetteville. Coincidentally, one of the other partners of the W.T. Farrar Hardware Store was Bert S. Lewis, a stockholder in the First National Bank.
The Lewis Brothers Building is well-known today for its iconic turret (or small tower) atop its roof, emblematic of the Queen Anne architecture, making it recognizable in the square.
Indeed, the Bank of Fayetteville founders have a knack for restoring old property. They would eventually take on the challenge of restoring a train car and caboose into the widely recognized and unique Train Bank on Dickson Street. Today, the Bank of Fayetteville has five branches in the city and other branches in nearby West Fork, Farmington and Prairie Grove.
The Bank of Fayetteville joined Farmers and Merchants Bank in a merger in December of 2015.
Farmers and Merchants Bank (F&M) was founded in 1945 in Stuttgart, Arkansas. By the early 1990s, F&M began expanding into the nearby communities of Des Arc, Hazen, DeWitt, Perryville, Morrilton and Marianna. F&M found a like-minded innovative companion in the Bank of Fayetteville, allowing them to break into the Northwest Arkansas market. In May of 2019, the F&M family grew with the addition of Integrity First Bank, which took F&M’s name and is headquartered in Mountain Home.
Today, Fayetteville has boomed far past the numbers mentioned in the 1880 census. A town of 1,788 has grown into a bustling, modern city of 86,622, as of 2020’s census count. What was once a small town creeping into the blossoming northwest corner of the state has become an anchor in the middle of a regional metropolitan boom. As Fayetteville evolved, so did its banking needs.
And as the years trickle by, both the Eason Building with the Old Bank of Fayetteville and the Lewis Brothers Building with its Bank of Fayetteville, stand on watch in the historic square. The two buildings remain a testament to the resilience and growth of the Fayetteville of the past, as well as the Fayetteville of the future.