By Ken Edwards
For more than a decade after Arizona achieved territorial status, there were no banks closer than Santa Fe, New Mexico and the major cities of California. Gold and silver were the accepted currency; paper money was not always trusted.
During the 1860s, merchants carried out many of the functions of banks. They would grubstake miners, extend credit, keep customers' valuables and a supply of cash in their safes, redeem government pay vouchers and advance money on future crops and freight.
In 1877, Solomon Lewis, a tobacco merchant from California and Martin Kales, who had run a mercantile establishment in Pioche, Nevada, decided there was a need for a bank in Prescott.
With the assistance of Will Hazeltine, a successful Prescott mercantile clerk, they organized the Bank of Arizona in August 1877, with Lewis as president. The new bank was located on the southeast corner of Gurley and Cortez Streets at the site recently vacated by Wells Fargo Bank.
By the end of the year there were 22 deposits which totaled about $12,500. The bank lent money at 1.5 to 3 percent interest per month, cashed warrants and drafts, and did some gold bullion transfers. Among other things, the bank had scales for weighing gold and an abacus for use with its Chinese customers.
Will Hazeltine became a clerk in the bank in 1880 and a cashier in 1882. There are many interesting stories about Will. Although bank robberies were rare in the West (it was easier to hold up the stage), Will did not completely trust the bank's safe so he sometimes put bags of gold in the waste basket and covered them with paper for "better" security! He also had one of those newfangled gadgets called a typewriter. He attracted the attention of townspeople who saw him using the machine through the bank window. So he moonlighted as a typewriter salesman.
On one occasion, Will refused to make a loan to a customer. In anger, the customer grabbed Will's beard and shook his head from side to side until his eyes were about to pop out. Will didn't change his mind about making the loan but when he went home for lunch he shaved off his beard and never grew it back again!
By 1888, both Lewis and Kales had sold their interest in the bank and entered the banking business in Phoenix. The Bank of Arizona (in Prescott) then was jointly owned by Hazeltine, Hugo Richards (the new president), and Edmund W. Wells. Wells was one of Prescott's illustrious pioneers, having come to the Arizona Territory in 1864 at the age of 18. By the late 1880s, Will Hazeltine was "The Bank" in the eyes of the townspeople. He carried most of the burden of day-to-day operations and was getting worn out. His younger brother, Moses, came to Prescott in 1887 to help out and, in 1894, Will retired for health reasons. It apparently was a good move as he lived for another 37 years!
Moses succeeded Will as cashier, became vice president in 1911, and president in 1928. He served in the latter capacity until 1948 when his son, Sherman, succeeded him.
During his tenure at the bank, Moses became a civic leader and served in many capacities, ranging from founder and director of the Apollo Club (a men's choir) to director of the Yavapai Red Cross, and president of the Prescott Auto Club. It is reported that one of his favorite sayings was, "Every dog should have fleas so he doesn't forget he's a dog."
During the Prescott fire of 1900, the new bank building was under construction at the original location and the business was being operated from temporary quarters on Gurley Street. The temporary quarters burned down, but the safe survived with its contents "warm but negotiable." The bank was forced to do business in even smaller quarters in the Telephone and Electric Company. The new site was not big enough for the safe, so it was left out on the sidewalk! During the day, a watchful eye was kept on it by bank employees and, at night, it was protected by armed guards. Apparently everyone thought this was good enough and their trust was justified. There were no attempts at robbery.
The 'new' bank building still stands. Until Wells Fargo closed its Gurley Street location this summer, the Bank of Arizona and its successor institutions had been in business at the same location for 121 years. The building is now the headquarters of the Prescott Chamber of Commerce.
Ken Edwards is a volunteer at the Sharlot Hall Museum.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (buba3009pc). Reuse only by permission.
The Bank of Arizona at the corner of Gurley and Cortez was sometimes the hub of Prescott activity as shown in this photo taken about 1878. The building that is now occupied by the Chamber of Commerce was build after the 1900 fire.