By Stephen D. Bowling
Standing at the end of the commercial row on east Main Street, the Hargis Bank and Trust Company building reminds passersby of a time when Breathitt County was eastern Kentucky’s economic and political center. The large, three-story building, with its yellow brick façade and ornate tin cornice, once welcomed visitors to our city. Though ravaged by time, the structure remains a symbol of fine artisanship and a reminder of two of the state’s most powerful brothers.
In 1845, with the disputed location for the new county seat of Breathitt Town settled, crews worked to clear the donated land on the top of the hill in the bend of the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Gifted to the community by Simon Cockrell, hired workers laid out and cleared the logs and brush from the site for a permanent courthouse. County leaders surveyed a simple grid of streets, including Main Street, Broadway, and Cross Main, to surround the courthouse for the town they expected to grow. Simon Cockrell, Jr. and his son, Harrison Cockrell, placed several desirable parcels of land near the courthouse up for sale, and investors quickly started to buy up the property. Early purchasers included Thomas Sewell, William M. Combs, Jeremiah W. South, and John Seldon Hargis. Hargis used his wealth and position as Circuit Clerk to purchase several choice lots opposite the proposed courthouse.
Hargis owned the property from 1846 until September 1881 when he, in old age, amassed debts that totaled “about $1,500 more or less,” and he sold the property to his sons, Alexander Hamilton Hargis and James Henderson Hargis. In the deal and subsequent deed, the Hargis brothers agreed to accept the property, including the family homestead on Panbowl, the lots in town, and all other coal and property interests in exchange for paying off all of their father’s debts and allowing him to retain a life estate on his “home farm.”
Through the years, the property found a wide variety of uses, including a log yard during the early construction era in the city of Jackson, a stable lot and livery for the Hargis and South hotels, and several other uses. A. H. and James Hargis continued to own the lot jointly. By 1897, the lot was home to a single-family dwelling occupied for several years by James Hargis’ brother-in-law, Floyd Day, and his wife, Rosa Lee. Floyd Day and his brothers operated the Day Brothers Sawmill and the Day Brothers Mercantile on Main Street, just two doors up the street from this modest home.
On February 6, 1908, the arrangement and ownership of the property that would become the Hargis Commercial Bank changed hands due to a deadly father-son dispute. James Henderson Hargis, the reputed leader of the Breathitt County “mafia” died after his only son, Beech Hargis, emptied a pistol into his father’s stomach after a scuffle over $20.00. Hargis died within minutes, and his son, Beech, found himself in the Kentucky State Reformatory, convicted of patricide.
With the filing of James Hargis’s will, his vast holdings transferred to his wife, Louellen (Day) Hargis. Louellen Hargis, one of the wealthiest women in the state, soon left Breathitt County for some time but sold the property on Main Street to her brother Floyd Day on June 1, 1909. By prearranged agreement, Floyd Day sold the property to Alexander Hamilton Hargis the following day for $750.00.
Rumors started circulating in Jackson in late 1910 that Senator A. H. Hargis and several others had chartered a new bank. The start of construction of a new brick building on Main Street near the Day Brothers’ Store only added fuel to the fire. In July 1911, The Jackson Times confirmed the Hargis property would be the home of a new bank. They could not report the actual name of the bank but noted that the building would be “one of the most modern bank buildings in Eastern Kentucky.” The Times predicted that the “fact that Senator Hargis is back of it ensures its success from the beginning.”
On August 23, 1911, the first stockholders paid their commitments, and Alexander Hargis recorded the Articles of Incorporation of the Hargis Commercial Bank & Trust Co. The following day, the Bank started full operations with its first stockholder revealed as: A. H. Hargis, Jackson- 125 shares; Miles Bach, Quicksand- 5 shares; Sanford Brown, Noctor- 5 shares. James L. Little, Grannis Back, W. D. Back, Wilgus Bach, Jerry R. Blake, S. M. Noble, Sewell B. Williams, and Alfred Russell each owned one share. The Hargis Bank was authorized to transact “any and all business that a bank was lawfully permitted to engage in” including paying interest on savings, purchasing property, and making loans. The total capital stock for the new bank was $25,000, and provisions allowed for an increase to $100,000 if needed. Mann and Phoebe Campbell of Troublesome Creek recorded the first home mortgage on the first day of operation.
The new bank building was completed in October 1911, and on November 23, 1911, Alexander Hamilton and Joannah E. Hargis sold the property that the new Bank stood on (a 30-feet by 70 feet lot fronting Main Street) to the Bank’s Board of Directors for $1.00. The Bank enjoyed a wide reputation for success and good management during the times of economic boom following World War I. By the late 1920s, the demand for coal and production dropped due to labor disputes and the slowing economy.
The collapse of the stock market and the drop in coal orders brought the world’s economic crisis to eastern Kentucky. Jackson was no different, and by February 5, 1930, the directors of the Bank realized that their indebtedness far outweighed the capital value of the Bank. In the days before FDIC insurance, the Bank simply hung a sign on the door and announced that they would cease business that day.
More than 15 years of legal efforts followed to recover some holdings of the Bank’s depositors. A huge auction held on August 19, 1935, sold the remaining property, including the new Hargis Bank building opposite the courthouse. Ervine Turner, Court Appointed Liquidator, sold the building along with 28 farms in Breathitt, Lee, and more than 100 other properties owned by the Bank. A jury found A. H. Hargis liable personally for the losses in a case in April 1937, but he evaded making restitution through some legal maneuvers. He died on April 30, 1943, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington, with numerous unpaid legal judgments.
On February 9, 1930, four days after closing, the Hargis Bank and Trust Company sold the old bank building to the Breathitt County Public Library Board of Directors for $16,000. For the next 42 years, the Breathitt County Public Library operated out of this stately structure on Main Street, serving the needs of the reading and information-seeking public.
By the late 1960s, the demand and needs of library users had outgrown the 30 x 70 lot and building. The Library Board purchased the Red Reynolds Garage on College Avenue in 1968.
The Library moved to a new location on College Avenue and sold the Hargis Bank Building to Nim and Charlie Henson on July 18, 1972. In the following years, the property changed hands several times and remains in private hands.
In the early morning hours of September 17, 2021, a fire broke out in the back of the Day Building on Main Street. Flames spread throughout the building within minutes and threatened the Hargis Commercial Bank building. Large plums of smoke could be seen billowing out of the top of the Hargis building as smoke filled the structure. At least three times, the flames burned through the adjoining wall and ignited areas in the Hargis Building, but firefighters managed to save the building. Now the Hargis Commercial Bank Building stands alone at the northeast end of Main Street.
While the building is no longer a bank or the county library, it is a potent reminder of the economic and political power that the Hargis family and the city of Jackson once enjoyed in Kentucky history.
© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling
I’m wondering about the year, 1848, that’s atop the building. How does it fit into the story?
When the building was constructed, the Hargis Brothers put the date that the property was purchased by their father, John S. Hargis. The same date appears on the top of the new Citizen’s Bank & Trust Co. building on Main Street built in 1926, long after John’s Hargis died.
That makes sense. Thanks Stephen.