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Posted: September 17, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Bank integral to city history

Last week, I spent some time looking ahead to the assets here in Newton County that will be the basis for our ultimate recovery from these, shall we say, "unpleasant" economic times. This week, let’s look back at some of our history, drawn from a book by Peggy Lamberson that was written for the Bank of Covington in 1989.

Newton County was chartered in December 1821 from parts of Walton, Rockdale, Henry and Baldwin (later Jasper) Counties, and a year later Covington was incorporated. By the 1830s, the town was attracting young men in search of an education at the Georgia Conference Manual Labor School, which later moved to Oxford and was the seed from which Emory University in Atlanta grew.

Pioneers were also drawn to the county’s plentiful water resources and rolling acreage that could be cleared and put into agricultural production. Stagecoach routes between Augusta and Atlanta made us a major trading center for our farm products, and hotels and taverns grew up to support the clientele. Even after a disastrous fire burned the north side of the Square in 1884, Covington remained a bustling commercial and retail district. There were nine saloons on the Square, all of which closed after the city council denied further liquor licenses in 1897.

In 1900, the county was thriving in construction, farming, transportation and commercial and retail activity. Banking services were in demand, and by 1901, the community could support a second bank, the Bank of Covington. Its founders and directors, some Emory educated and others large landowners, had a personal stake in seeing the community develop on a solid foundation. Loan-making was a carefully studied affair, always with the prosperity and needs of the community in mind. Those decisions contributed to boom times in the county until the boll weevil struck in the 1920s, shaking the underpinnings of the bank more than the Great Depression.

All other banks in the county at that time closed. R.R. Fowler, Rob Fowler’s grandfather, was bank president during the boll weevil crisis when the board voted to loan $200 to buy pigs to be bought and distributed around the county. Thus was established the philanthropic philosophy that would guide the bank — and the family — going forward. His son and grandson followed as bank presidents.

Other banks came and went, but the Bank of Covington remained pre-eminent and was said to be the strongest bank between Augusta and Atlanta..

Agriculture thrived along with the new pulpwood industry pioneered in Newton County. In the 1960s, major industries found their way to our doorstep. It was a time of no-holds economic expansion and population growth. Frank Turner, who served on the bank’s board as did his father and grandfather, describes the Bank of Covington as a true "community" bank that supported the things people wanted and needed.

Probably one of its best decisions was to hire feisty Virginia Lott as a teller in 1957. She retired in 1988 as Assistant Vice President and Branch Director, and as much or more than anyone in those years, she was the public face of the bank.

Rob Fowler recalls those times well, when banking was built on personal relationships, character and a handshake. "Today we’re all just numbers," he says. "It used to be that people made the difference but now it’s all about the numbers."

Fowler says that Lott ran the branches "with an iron hand," but was also the instigator of the family atmosphere that pervaded the bank operations, from its employees to its customers. Does anyone remember those crazy Halloweens when the employees dressed up in costumes designed to outdo one another? Lott’s attire usually took the cake. At one time, she managed as many as 40 tellers and only had to fire one.

While the Bank of Covington is no longer, to Virginia Lott, it lives on in still-fresh memories and the many former "family" members she holds dear. And before they all get away, she’s planning a reunion on Tuesday, Oct. 5, a sit-down dinner for any and all former employees. The menu includes reminiscing, recollections, maybe a few tears and lots of good old-fashioned laughter. Virginia Lott will be in high gear. Call her at (770) 786-3321. She’s sitting by the phone.

Barbara Morgan is a resident of Covington with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. Her column appears on Fridays.

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