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Lumberton's first bank: 1897-1970


By Scott Bigelow

When banks were collapsing across the nation during the Great Depression, the story of the National Bank of Lumberton’s survival is worthy of a Hollywood epic.

The Bank of Lumberton was founded in 1897 by Angus Wilton McLean and was the town’s first bank. Readers may recall it as Southern National Bank, renamed in 1958 as it grew beyond Robeson County.

At age 27, McLean saw the need for a bank and made it happen with several partners and $15,000. At the turn of the century, Lumberton was a ramshackle of wooden buildings and unpaved streets.

McLean saw only opportunity in a town characterized by “drunkenness and rowdyism.” Before the Bank of Lumberton was established, businessmen traveled to Wilmington to make deposits, or they put cash into safes, like the one Henry Berry Lowrie stole with $20,000 inside.

Much has been said about the principles of Scottish immigrants. McLean was a poster child for those legendary conservative business practices.

McLean recruited solid citizens as partners, board members and employees, and everyone understood that his word was unshakable. The first president of the bank was Thomas McNeill, a Civil War veteran, lawyer and former legislator.

McLean was the man behind the scenes, and The Robesonian newspaper acknowledged it. The paper lavished praise on the bank and its founder, saying it “had the confidence of the people.”

On opening day, the bank took in $8,000 in the first hour. By 1900, McLean was president with a salary of $40 a year, and the bank issued a 3% dividend to shareholders and a $25 bonus to its president.

By 1905, deposits surpassed $100,000 and two years later deposits doubled. By 1910, bank deposits soared to more than half a million dollars, and McLean was its leading shareholder.

In 1912, McLean was appointed undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury by President Woodrow Wilson. A year later, a new bank building was erected at 3rd and Elm Streets.

A lawyer and entrepreneur, McLean built a hotel, a railroad, telephone company, three cotton mills and the Southern Express building, which is home of the Robeson County History Museum today.

He was also a politician who served a chair of the state Democratic Party and governor of North Carolina from 1925 to 1929. McLean was known as the business governor, who organized the state’s administration and balanced its out-of-control budget.

With many endeavors competing for his time, he always found time to run his bank. While working in Washington, McLean took the overnight train home to meet with major bank customers on Fridays and to work on the books on Saturdays. After Sunday church and a family dinner, he headed back to Washington.

With the Treasury, McLean helped initiate legislation to establish the Federal Reserve to stabilize the nation’s banking system. When the Fed became a reality, McLean pushed his board of directors to join and to change the bank’s name to the National Bank of Lumberton.

By 1920, deposits passed $1 million. McLean remained the largest shareholder, but the part-time president’s title earned a mere $100 a month.

McLean saw the Great Depression coming and tightened down on loans, increased cash and cut his and other employee’s salaries. The National Bank of Lumberton was secure, but bank failures nationally shook depositor’s faith and collapsed even strong banks.

When President Franklin Roosevelt declared a five-day bank holiday in 1933, McLean took extreme measures to ensure public confidence. Calling what he did an “extreme” measure may be an understatement, unbelievable may be more appropriate.

An armored car was sent to the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, VA, to bring back $1 million in cash. McLean stacked the cash on the counter for the public to see.

Depositors were invited to withdraw their money. According to legend, one investor withdrew his life savings and returned it two hours later.

The National Bank of Lumberton was one of only two banks in the county to reopen after the bank holiday. McLean, however, did not survive the depression.

Angus Wilton McLean, 65, died in Washington on June 21, 1935, of a blood clot. His death was front page news in North Carolina and New York. Ten thousand people attended his funeral.

Who would replace the founder? There are three large portraits in the History Museum’s Business Room. At McLean’s death, these solemn-looking men served as presidents of the Lumberton bank.

A copy of the “History of Southern National Bank: Service-‑None Better,” on file at the History Museum, tells us they were presidents of First National Bank of Lumberton from 1935 through early 1950s.

The first president after McLean’s death, was 72-year-old Albert White. He was vice president of the bank, a merchant, owner of the Lorraine Hotel and member on the boards of two cotton mills.

The bank grew despite the depression, and by 1939, it had deposits of more than $3 million with 12 employees. White died in 1941 weeks before the U.S. entered the second World War.

Dr. Russell Beam, White’s son-in-law and an ear, nose and throat physician, succeeded him. Dr. Beam was also an entrepreneur with diverse interests in farming, a cotton gin and the co-owner of the Carolina Theater.

Upon Dr. Beam’s death in 1946, he was replaced by Morris Cobb, a long-time cashier at the bank. The bank celebrated its 50th anniversary a year later with more than $11 million in deposits.

Hector MacLean, Wilton’s youngest son, was 14 when his father died. By 1953, he was fresh out of law school and appointed assistant to the bank president.

When MacLean turned 33 in 1955, he was named president. A new era of expansion was about to begin.

The bank and Robeson County boomed after World War II. Banking in North Carolina was still largely a community affair, but that was about to change, and Hector MacLean was one of a new generation of Carolina bankers hungry to grow.

Although Robeson’s economy and the bank were grounded in agriculture, which was dependent on tobacco and cotton, the new president saw another future and funded Lumberton’s first economic development office.

Maclean wanted a branch in Laurinburg, but to expand, the bank name would need to change. In 1958, the board voted to change the name to Southern National Bank.

A Fayetteville branch followed, and the race was on. In 1963, the bank added a key employee, Joe Sandlin, a CPA and bank auditor with specialized administrative skills. He would become president in 1973.

In 1964, Southern National’s expansion strategy changed. Instead of opening branches, buying small banks was more efficient. The Bank of Rowland was the first to be absorbed, and by 1965, SNB was in Lee, Harnett, Hoke and Richmond counties.

A shiny, new headquarters constructed in downtown Lumberton. Service to consumers became a focus. Consumer loans, drive-in windows, credit cards and marketing all paid dividends.

The acquisition of the Bank of Charlotte in 1970 was as important as it was unusual. Its owner decided on a late on a Friday that he wanted to sell the bank that day. Working late on Friday, SNB answered his call, chartered a plane, and the deal was done on Saturday.

This account of a remarkable business story ends here. There is much more to tell as Southern National continued to grow merging with BB&T and Sun Trust to become Truist today.

The Robeson County History Museum has several artifacts from the early Bank of Lumberton including the savings passbook (pictured here) that dates to 1917.

Located at 1st and Elm Streets, History Museum hours are 10 a.m. to noon, Tuesdays and Thursdays and 2 to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

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