First Financial Bank marks 150th anniversary of its founding in Hamilton

The First National Bank of Hamilton, Ohio, was granted charter no. 56 on Aug. 10, 1863 under the National Bank Act. The necessary bonds were purchased and deposited with the Treasurer of the United States.

First National opened on Aug. 15, 1863, in a room at 239 High Street in Hamilton, according to historical information provided to the newspaper by First Financial.

The National Bank Act created a new class of federally chartered and supervised banks, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The comptroller’s office, which regulates national banks, was created the same year in 1863 as a division of the U.S. Treasury Dept. for administrative oversight of the nation’s new banking system.

The banks were required by law to buy U.S. bonds to back the bank notes they would then be allowed to issue, according to the federal agency’s website. That way, if a bank failed, depositors would be reimbursed from the sale of the bonds.

At the time the bank act passed, the country was in Civil War. The National Bank Act also established a uniform paper currency honored throughout the soon-to-be unified country, according to the comptroller’s history online.

First Financial now holds the sixth oldest bank charter in the country, company officials said.

“Considering all that has occurred over the past 150 years, including wars, recessions and depressions, development of new technology and so forth, there have been some pretty significant challenges and changes,” said Claude Davis, president and chief executive officer of First Financial.

“However, the bank has persevered and continued to grow during these uncertain times,” Davis said. “That really makes a statement about our history, values and service to our clients.”

First Financial Bank National Association is headquartered in Hamilton today, at 300 High St. Parent holding company First Financial Bancorp, formed in 1983, has since moved its headquarters to downtown Cincinnati.

At the time First National Bank was founded, Beckett Mill on Dayton Street was operating in Hamilton, said Kathy Creighton, executive director of Butler County Historical Society. Beckett Mill later became Mohawk Fine Papers and closed in 2012.

Other Hamilton industry in the 1860s included Schuler and Benninghofen, a woolen mill that made wool blankets and felt used by the paper industry, Creighton said.

The bank survived the Great Depression and the recent Great Recession.

“I think the bank was always very sensitive about its capital position. It was perhaps more conservative in its lending process than its competition,” said Vaden Fitton, former senior officer, first vice president of First National and bank director. He is still director emeriti of First Financial Bank and the parent holding company.

The Fitton family of Hamilton is closely intertwined with the bank’s history. Four generations of Fittons worked at the bank, Vaden said.

Vaden’s grandfather S.D. Fitton, Vaden’s father Don W. Fitton and his first cousin Richard Fitton are past bank presidents. Richard’s son James and Vaden’s son Vaden “Woody” Fitton also worked at the bank.

Vaden said his grandfather started working at the bank as a teenager, and did not graduate from high school. S.D.’s first job was to sweep the lobby, dust everything off and make sure there was a fire going in cold weather. S.D. Fitton worked his way up to become bank president from 1895 to 1919, according to the company’s records.

“Banking was a totally different thing back then. It wasn’t as sophisticated, but in many ways the personal service was better,” Vaden said.

“All of the Fittons are very proud of their association with the bank over the years,” he said.

First National Bank grew over time. A trust department was added in 1923 and the company’s name was changed to The First National Bank and Trust Co. of Hamilton, bank officials said.

In 1930, the eight-story building that still stands at the corner of High and Third streets was constructed at “a cost not to exceed $550,000,” according to the bank’s records.

Dorothea McCollum of Hamilton remembers getting her first loan from First Financial, or First National as it was known at the time, after World War II. She has been a customer since 1949.

Her and her husband Marvin “Bud” McCollum wanted a loan to build their first house in West Park, a veteran’s neighborhood being built with 127 lots in Hamilton. The lot cost $150. Dorothea and Bud had the money to buy the land, but not enough to pay for their house, she said.

Dorothea had graduated college and was teaching. Bud had almost graduated from Miami University and didn’t yet have a job.

“So you can imagine coming to the bank and saying we would like to buy a house, and it would cost $10,820. That’s a lot of money for college kids, not today, but back then,” Dorothea said. “We were kind of afraid we wouldn’t get the loan or be approved.”

They had to speak to the board of the bank. The couple had “the nerve to come to the bank and ask for a loan” when all they had to their name was a car, she said.

Then into the meeting comes Mr. Don Fitton, president of the bank. Dorothea said he told the board, “I know these people.”

Fitton’s sons played sports with Bud. His daughter was friends in high school with Dorothea.

Dorothea recounted that Fitton told board, “In fact, I know this family well. They have been at my home as guests and I recommend that you give them the loan.”

“Period, we got the loan,” she said. “That’s how they did it back then.”

After that, First National Bank and Trust Co. of Hamilton and First National Bank of Middletown would merge in 1980, forming First National Bank of Southwestern Ohio.

The parent holding company First Financial Bancorp was created in 1983. At the time, it consisted of $2.6 billion in assets with 15 affiliates operating 106 banking centers in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, according to First Financial.

In more recent history, First Financial doubled in size in 2009 through acquisitions. The growth led the company to move an administrative support center in Middletown to Springdale in a renovated corporate administration center that opened in 2011.

The holding company’s headquarters left Hamilton in 2007. Corporate headquarters now reside in downtown Cincinnati, the region’s financial center, at 225 E. Fifth St.

However, the company’s main subsidiary, the bank, is still headquartered in Hamilton.

Currently, First Financial has approximately $6.3 billion in assets as of June 30 and is Butler County’s largest bank by deposits.

“Our roots are in Hamilton and we’ve been part of the community for 150 years. Although we’ve experienced growth, we are still a local, community-minded bank. Clients know they will get personal attention and local decision making with us,” said Davis, who became president and CEO in 2004.

“Moving forward, it’s important that we remain relevant to our clients and communities,” he said. “We are investing in new technology and redefining our delivery channels to meet our clients’ changing needs.”

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