Rich history

Farmers National Bank celebrates its 125th anniversary

By Karl Henkel


When John Gulas, president and CEO of Canfield-based Farmers National Bank wanted to get an authentic historical perspective on the company as it approached its 125th anniversary, he decided to call the relatives of one of his predecessors.

Gulas set up a conference call with the grandchildren and great- grandchildren of Hiram John Beardsley, CEO of the bank from 1927 until 1947.

Many of them still have stock in the company too, representative of the long but continuous history of the largest community bank in the Mahoning Valley.

The history of Farmers, however, predates Beardsley, the third of eight Farmers CEOs, by four decades, all the way back to Feb. 19, 1887, when a group of local businessmen decided the area needed a new bank.

Fifty businessmen purchased 500 shares of stock valued at $100 a share to launch the fledgling bank.

Alexander Dickson, the first CEO and a former schoolteacher, Civil War captain and treasurer of Mahoning County, was named the bank’s first president at its first charter meeting.

The first deposits barely topped the value of a share: A tavern keeper, barber, school principal, two tailors and a housewife deposited $170.

The bank at the time occupied the Van Hyning building, along Main Street, from its inception and remained there until 1930. Then, under the direction of Beardsley, Farmers built the National Bank building, in the lot to the north.

Farmers remains at that Broad Street location to this day, notes local historian Jennifer Neff, who has penned a book about the history of Canfield and Farmers National Bank, which for all 125 years has existed in the village-green area of the U.S. Route 224 and state Route 46 intersections.

From 1919 until 1951, the bank shared building space with Farmers Savings and Loan.

(For those who remember, the bank was inside to the left; Savings and Loan was inside to the right, as dictated in a faded 1930 Farmers pamphlet that Amber Wallace, senior vice president of marketing, found just a few months ago at the Baroque Revival-style Farmers headquarters.)

The Savings and Loan’s story in 1982 took a unique twist, at least when looked upon today, when it merged with First Federal of Youngstown, which later merged with First Federal of Warren and later became First Place Bank, now a community bank rival to Farmers.

But there may have been no rivalry if not for a man named Robert Hudson Neff, Jennifer Neff’s father, for whom she penned her book.

Robert Hudson Neff, in 1974, organized a large group of shareholders to save Farmers from merging with First Steubenville Bancorporation.

The anti-merger group, led by Neff, whose two great-grandfathers, Martin Neff and John Sanzenbacher, and his grandfather, John E. Neff, were original Farmers shareholders, made their case and eventually maintained the bank’s local presence, staving off the merger.

But the bank prospered out of the mid-1970s and in 1978 posted then-record earnings of $702,000, or $4.77 per share.

The bank grew to $8.6 million in total assets in 1981.

A year later, in 1982, it spent $1.3 million on a renovation that doubled the size of its headquarters to 11,000-square feet, Jennifer Neff said.

A year after that, the bank became a holding company, known in present day as Farmers National Banc Corp.

Neff said much of her research on the history of Farmers came from articles written by the former Mahoning Dispatch.

Historical facts include the restaurants that occupied the basement of the bank building — “Whenever I asked about people about it, the first thing they said was ‘They served beer,’” Jennifer Neff said.

There were the many FBI-investigated robberies, the worker-ignited fire at the bank’s South Meridian Road location that caused $60,000 in damages in 1988, and the merger of Farmers with Security Dollar of Niles in 2000.

But through it all, the bank remains one of the oldest and most successful Mahoning Valley institutions.

Today, on the 125th anniversary of the bank, Farmers has more than $1 billion in assets. It also has grown to include trust, wealth management and investment insurance financial services.

The bank now has 19 locations and two trust offices throughout the Mahoning Valley.

Farmers has reached many milestones in the past few years, thanks in part to a company re-evaluation in 2008, which coincided with the front-end of the nation’s economic collapse.

“We decided where we wanted to be and where we wanted to go,” Gulas said. “Even though it was a turbulent time, we invested for our future.”

So far, the rededication has paid dividends — pun intended.

Despite the recession, Farmers has paid dividends to shareholders every quarter since 1983.

On Sept. 15, 2011, the bank’s shares first appeared on the NASDAQ Capital Market, under the symbol FMNB, the same symbol it used while its shares were traded over-the-counter.

The bank in December became part of the ABA NASDAQ Community Bank Index, a group that includes approximately 420 community banks with more than $116 billion in market capitalization.

Gulas said at the time he believed joining the Index would bring Farmers “added visibility and recognition on Wall Street.”

Farmers isn’t exactly synonymous with Wall Street.

Last June, Gulas and some of the Farmers team took to Wall Street to shoot a local television commercial aimed at drawing a bright contrast between big Wall Street banks that received federal bailout money and local community banks such as Farmers, which like many Americans, struggled to get through the brunt of the recession.

And on the one-and-one-quarter-century anniversary, Gulas thinks the bank is primed for even bigger and better things.

“We’ve got all the bells and whistles,” he said, citing the company’s slogan, “Proven Past. Strong Future.” “We really believe we’ve become the employer of choice in the Valley.”

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