Looking Back: Birmingham’s first bank

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 21, 2019

BIRMINGHAM — It may seem weird to try to imagine a world without banks, credit cards or direct deposit, but for early Birmingham farmers and businesspeople, it was reality.

Before the automobile, getting to the closest bank in Detroit or Pontiac meant catching the train or traveling Woodward by horse and buggy.

Two of Birmingham’s most prolific entrepreneurs in the latter half of the 1800s had the solution. George Mitchell and Almeron Whitehead founded the Birmingham Eccentric Newspaper and several other businesses, and held numerous civic positions. In the beginning, people — mostly farmers — were allowed to “deposit” their cash in the Whitehead and Mitchell General Store safe, the very first safe in Birmingham, until they could travel to the banks in Detroit or Pontiac. Records of who had left what for safekeeping were recorded in the store’s ledgers.

In 1886, Whitehead and Mitchell decided to make this casual agreement official. They opened the Exchange Bank next to their general store. In 1910, the Exchange Bank became the First National Bank of Birmingham, the first of many banks that later sprang up in town during the freewheeling 1920s, though most of those closed during the Great Depression.

In this photo from the 1890s, the Exchange Bank is on the right, and Whitehead and Mitchell’s General Store is on the left.

— Caitlin Donnelly, museum assistant at the Birmingham Museum