A Brief History

In 1811 there was only one Virginia bank with statewide connections. In spite of fear of war with England, in 1812 the General Assembly passed a bill authorizing the Farmers Bank of Virginia to lend money to the United States.

Farmers Bank building in the early 1960s
The building in early 1960s before renovation

Originally seven branches opened, including the one in Petersburg; later nineteen branches were established around the state.  Benjamin Hatcher was the first president of the Petersburg branch. Each branch had its own capital stock separate from the stock of the parent. The Petersburg branch was allowed to issue its own notes of circulation backed by specie, or gold.

The first branch was housed in rental quarters, but the location is not known. In 1815 the “great fire” destroyed many buildings in the city, including the first Farmers Bank. In 1817 the current Federal-style building at Bollingbrook St. and Markethouse Alley (later Bank Alley and now Cockade Alley) was constructed on property bought from Robert Bolling IV of Bollingbrook, who had just had the land raised to prevent flooding so that it could be developed.  Bollingbrook St. was the first street in the city to be paved, in 1813.

The three-story building contained banking activity on the first floor, with an apartment for the executive officer and his family on the upper floors. Behind the building were a smoke house for the residents and a guard house for the bank. These structures were rebuilt in the 1960s. The two-story kitchen was rebuilt in the 1980s on the foundations of the original building. Behind those buildings were a stable and carriage house where now there is a parking lot.

During the Civil War, all money was in Confederate securities, which became worthless in April of 1865. The Farmers Bank of Virginia was liquidated in 1867 under the rules of the Reconstruction Government.

Farmers Bank of Petersburg after building restoration
The building after renovation.

On June 14 of 1867 the Petersburg Index advertised the auction on June 15 of the Farmers Bank property. It was sold to Thomas Branch, who had represented the city at the Secession Convention of 1861, and he housed his brokerage firm there through 1877. In the following years the building was employed for various purposes, including as a residence and retail shops, before the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now Preservation Virginia) acquired it in 1964. It was restored with local funds raised from the Fort Henry Branch of APVA.

In 1956 the Fort Henry Branch of the APVA was established at Ellerslie, the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Minge Dunlop. The first general meeting of the Fort Henry Branch took place at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in 1957. The organization purchased a sizable collection of the watercolors of father and son William Skinner Simpson and sponsored the publication of the Simpson collection in 1987.

The Farmers Bank was opened for public tours in 1972, incompletely furnished at first, and gradually additional furniture was donated. It was the first bank museum in Virginia, and possibly in the southeast. It entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

From 1977 until 1989 the building served as the Petersburg Visitors Center, which was moved to the McIlwaine House; and again as the Visitors Center when the McIlwaine House was sold and renovated.

The Farmers Bank was one of the properties which Preservation Virginia decided to divest when the organization consolidated its efforts in the preservation of a limited number of its properties.  The branches, including the Fort Henry Branch, associated with the divested properties were slated for dissolution.

Farmers Bank of Petersburg
The Farmers Bank today

On August 18, 2013, at a meeting of interested people at the Farmers Bank, the Fort Henry Branch was dissolved and a new organization, Friends of the Historic Farmers Bank, was established.  Previously the branch had arranged much work on the building, including the stabilization of the west wall.

A board was established, and a mission statement and by-laws were formulated.  On August 27 Friends was incorporated, and on July 7, 2014, the organization was notified that its application for tax-exempt status under section 501(c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code had been approved.

In December of 2016, after the city of Petersburg had vacated the premises, Friends of the Historic Farmers Bank opened the facility as the Historic Farmers Bank Museum and Petersburg Area Information Center.  In May of 2018 Preservation Virginia transferred ownership of the property to Friends of the Historic Farmers Bank. Petersburg Preservation Task Force opened a Petersburg Visitors Center in the Exchange Building in July 2018, and the Bank continues as a Museum, currently offering free tours on Friday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment.