Florida’s Union Bank

Florida’s habit of booming and busting stretches far back, much farther than the land boom of the 1920s many Floridians already know about. One of the most controversial busts happened shortly after Florida became a U.S. territory. Like most frontier societies with a future, Florida was full of eager settlers with a vision. And visions require money. In the agricultural economy of the Old South, much of the wealth was tied up in land, slaves, and the capital goods necessary to grow crops. Even the wealthiest planters relied heavily on credit to do business, because there just wasn’t much cash to be had. So what do you do when you need better access to cash and credit? You build a bank, of course!

This building served the Union Bank of Florida, two of its predecessor banks, and a freedmen's savings bank opened after the Civil War (Tallahassee, circa 1870s).

This building served the Union Bank of Florida, two of its predecessor banks, and a freedmen’s savings bank opened after the Civil War (Tallahassee, circa 1870s).

The Spanish had barely weighed anchor and left Pensacola before efforts began to get a bank established in Florida. Military Governor Andrew Jackson forwarded a petition of Pensacola citizens to the federal government asking for a branch of the United States Bank. Their request was denied. A number of Floridians also attempted to have the territorial government charter a bank, but Governor William Pope Duval vetoed every proposal, believing banks to be monopolistic.

William Pope Duval, Florida's first territorial governor (in office 1822-1834). Date of painting unknown.

William Pope Duval, Florida’s first territorial governor (in office 1822-1834). Date of painting unknown.

After the U.S. weathered its banking crisis and the United States Bank was no more, credit and cash-hungry planters renewed their demand for some kind of bank in Florida. In 1828, enough support developed in the territorial legislature to pass a charter for the Bank of Florida at Tallahassee. Lawmakers would charter a total of 18 banks between 1828 and 1839, but the most interesting (and most infamous) of these was the Union Bank of Florida, also established at Tallahassee.

John Grattan Gamble, one of the principal founders of the Union Bank of Florida (circa 1830s).

John Grattan Gamble, one of the principal founders of the Union Bank of Florida (circa 1830s).

The Union Bank, chartered in 1833, was founded by a group of planters led by John Grattan Gamble of Jefferson County. Gamble and his associates believed if they could only get enough capital to bring their land under full cultivation, they could quickly make a tremendous amount of money. The first problem, however, was to get enough capital to start the bank.

Gamble and his associates used a common scheme of that era to finance the new bank. First, the planters purchased stock in the new institution by mortgaging their land and slaves, the most valuable assets they owned. Operating cash came from the sale of thousand-dollar bonds guaranteed by the territorial government, redeemable in 1860 with six percent interest. Gamble intended to go abroad and drum up more capital from foreign investors. Surely they would recognize the potential of an untapped agricultural paradise like Florida. What could possibly go wrong?

A $1,000 bond of the territorial government of Florida, designed to capitalize the Union Bank (1835).

A $1,000 bond of the territorial government of Florida, designed to capitalize the Union Bank (1835).

A lot could go wrong, and a lot did go wrong at the Union Bank. The bank’s officials were the ones who determined how much a stockholder’s land was worth, and therefore how much stock he might receive in return for mortgaging it, and how much money he might borrow from the bank. This almost immediately led to charges of favoritism. Some of Gamble’s friends and family received larger amounts of bank stock and credit than other planters with the same amount of collateral. Lots of folks had paid into the scheme to get the bank started, but only a few were receiving any benefit.

Moreover, the Panic of 1837 and a severe drought in 1840 combined to tax the bank’s resources to the maximum. The law prohibited the bank from increasing its capital through more bond sales, which left the bank unable to pay its debts to its stockholders or on the territorial bonds that had originally funded its creation. The territorial government was left holding the bag for these latter obligations. When it became clear in 1843 that the Union Bank would not recover, the legislature suspended its banking authority by law.

A check from Union Bank president John Grattan Gamble to the Phenix Bank of New York, dated August 2, 1836. Not longer after this, the bank's credit would drastically drop and its checks and currency would be widely rejected.

A check from Union Bank president John Grattan Gamble to the Phenix Bank of New York, dated August 2, 1836. Not long after this, the bank’s credit would drastically drop and its checks and currency would be widely rejected.

The Union Bank may have passed away, but the building lived on to serve many useful purposes in Tallahassee. From the end of the Civil War until 1879 it served as a savings bank for freedmen. At other times it served as a feed store, shoe factory, coffee house, art gallery, locksmith’s shop, and even a church.

The Union bank building showing its age (circa 1920s).

The Union bank building showing its age (circa 1920s).

By the mid 20th century, however, the building was showing signs of neglect. Local historians and preservationists succeeded in having the building recognized as a historic landmark in 1967. The building’s location on prime Tallahassee real estate, however, threatened its continued existence. To save the building from being demolished for a parking lot, a group of local citizens and the state government teamed up to raise $40,000 to have the Union Bank building moved to its present location on Apalachee Parkway. It now houses Florida A&M University’s Black Archives Research Center.

Preparing to relocate the Union Bank building to its new home on Apalachee Parkway (1971).

Preparing to relocate the Union Bank building to its new home on Apalachee Parkway (1971).

Moving the Union Bank building (1971).

Moving the Union Bank building (1971).

What are the oldest buildings in your Florida community? Search for photos of these and other historic Florida structures in the Florida Photographic Collection.

The Union Bank building after restoration (circa 1990s).

The Union Bank building after restoration (circa 1990s).

Welcome to Florida!

Florida was one of the first states to create highway welcome centers, which have now become almost standard across the nation. The establishment of the Dixie Highway routed travelers as far north as Michigan into the state of Florida via a little town called Yulee. Leaders of the growing Florida tourism industry saw this as an excellent opportunity to educate out-of-towners on the many sites and attractions the state had to offer.

Ribbon cutting at opening of hospitality house in Yulee, FL (1949).

Florida’s First Lady, Mrs. Fuller Warren cuts the ribbon at hospitality house opening ceremony – Yulee, Florida (November 4, 1949).

Florida’s first “hospitality house” opened in Yulee in the fall of 1949 on the Georgia-Florida line. Seven more centers followed to greet visitors arriving via US1/301 in Hilliard, US41 near Jennings, US231 near Campbellton, US90 in Pensacola, a marine center in Fernandina Beach, US27 in Havana, and US19 near Monticello.

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

People in front of welcome sign- Havana, Florida (1962).

Unidentified ladies and a man in front of the welcome sign – Havana, Florida (1962).

Although these original facilities have since come and gone, they created a long-standing tradition for offering complimentary orange juice, maps, attraction information, and assistance for tourists with travel inquiries. They also featured picnic and restroom facilities (and anyone who has been on a road trip understands the sanctity and relief of a well placed “restroom” sign).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Today there are five Official Florida Welcome Centers operated by Visit Florida. They are located on Interstate 10 in Pensacola, US231 near Campbellton, the State Capitol in Tallahassee, Interstate 75 in Live Oak, and Interstate 95 near Jacksonville. Personnel now undergo training to receive a national Information Specialist certification to better serve visitors. Otherwise, not much has changed in the way of good ole’ friendly service you can expect at any one of these stations.

The I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Interior of the I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Since the first welcome center opened in 1949, the State of Florida has estimated that 90 million visitors have been received, and more than 200 million maps have been distributed. Now that’s a lot of free orange juice!

Florida welcome sign - Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

Florida welcome sign – Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

If you’re traveling through the Sunshine State this summer, be sure to stop at an Official Florida Welcome Center. If you’re stuck at home for the moment, you can still enjoy a bit of Florida by searching for your favorite Sunshine State destinations in the Florida Photographic Collection.

 

Pensacola at the Turn of the 20th Century

Enjoy some of our favorite photos of Pensacola in the early 1900s.

Pensacola Fire Department (1903)

Pensacola Fire Department (1903)

Mounted Patrol during the streetcar strike (April 1908)

Mounted Patrol during the streetcar strike (April 1908)

Pensacola Harbor (1903)

Pensacola Harbor (1903)

Palafox Street (ca. 1910)

Palafox Street (ca. 1910)

Consolidated Grocery Company at the Citizens National Bank (1906)

Consolidated Grocery Company at the Citizens National Bank (1906)

Found a great photo of Pensacola at the turn of the 20th century that we missed? Share it with us in the comments.