CITIZENS BANK BUILDING ON MAIN STREET A MONUMENT TO A MAN
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
Today it anchors the corner of Main and First Streets but now serves as a store room – an ignominious end for a half-century of serving as the economical and often social barometer of Folkston and Charlton County.
When the Citizens Bank opened the doors to its new banking house on Main Street it graced the city much as a diamond does its setting. The massive columns on the front radiated confidence to the community that a period of growth and stability was at hand.
But as imposing as the exterior of the stately old building may be, it was what was going on inside the building that was the throbbing heart of the city and county. It was inside these doors that histories of success and failure were being written, around the life of a gentle and kind man, whose vocation required him to wear the raiment of ruthlessness.
An early recollection of the bank and this man came in 1939 when one of the men of the county died suddenly, leaving behind a frail widow and two young sons. The bank president did not let the sun go down on that day without driving his car out to the widow’s home and offering comfort and financial aid to a family steeped in poverty.
“Whatever you and your boys need, just let me know, and you don’t have to worry about paying it back” the bank told the widow as he put on a mantle of tenderness, unusual for him.
The same banker had paid for a small home for the widow’s mother, also a widow, several years earlier and given her the title “free and clear”. Still, in the business world this banker wore the reputation of ruthlessness. He, as cashier of the bank, and his father as bank president had seen their sound bank closed by federal edict in the national bank holiday of the 1930s. The bank re-opened and depositors did not lose a nickel – but the industry’s troubles had a lasting influence on the cashier, who became president of the bank after his father’s death. The remainder of his banking career was bridled with the fear of history repeating itself. It never did.
The banking face of William Mizell, Jr. is well known to those who dealt with him in his bank office. Also the sign on his wall admonishing “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” – the early-American pistol kept as protection against would-be bandits – and the electric fan sitting on a corner shelf, oscillating silently.
The story is well-known of his harassment one day with a troublesome crank telephone. When he couldn’t raise the operator, he tore the instrument from its anchor on the wall, walked through the front door of the bank and threw the troublesome contraption out onto the sidewalk. Businessmen knew then not to bother “Mr. Billy” for several days until his mood sweetened.
For decades his bank was the county’s only financial institution. History has softened his image of ruthlessness. With the daily demands for loans from the good and the bad alike, a steel-hardened case was necessary, but underneath that case was a heart as big as life itself.
The family of the father who died suddenly in 1939 will not recall the banker – but the man. His offer of help on the day the father died, and his serving as one of the pallbearers at the father’s funeral will not be forgotten.
Afterward the banker would interrupt his busy day to stop one of the sons, put him into the front seat of his big black 1939 Lincoln Zephyr and drive him to Kings Ferry for a personal guided tour of the old Mizell home place on the St. Marys River.
The crusty old banker in the front seat with the young boy talked of his mountain home in Hendersonville, N.C., coupled with an invitation for “you and your brother to spend some time there with us.” He hosted the young son, along with other young people, at his home on the Satilla River at Burnt Fort, before it was destroyed by arsonists.
The son grew up and went into the general insurance business. The banker and his wife called him in and bought an expensive hospital insurance policy. The banker offered comfort when the son’s insurance business foundered.
Talking of money to the young insurance agent, he said “Son, what money won’t grease, you won’t have to ride on”. It was only talk because his listener knew that the steel case covered a man of kindness.
The banker had his own tragedies. His pet deer had attacked his wife as she was attempting to feed them. Severely injured, she soon recovered. The deer were removed, but their pens were made into an office hideaway for the banker.
It was in this hideaway that the banker often talked with the son as he grew up. Often when the young man walked past the banker’s home on his way home from work, the two would meet on the sidewalk and drift into the office hideaway to talk. In these talks the real “Billy Mizell” shined through. The compassion of a wealthy banker for a struggling young man with ambitions far beyond his reach. Such as the desire for a home of his own in the North Carolina mountains. This, and other dreams, were laid out in the office hideaway.
Shortly before his death the banker mailed the young man an autographed copy of a book he had written about his early home at Kings Ferry. The banker had to struggle to retain his stern reputation, for underneath was nothing but compassion and a desire to be loved.
History will be kind to William Mizell, Jr. and most will remember him only as a steel-eyed banker, but there are those, especially the two boys he befriended over the years, who will remember him as a kind, gentle man, whose compassion for others, of necessity, had to be kept under a bushel basket.
The old bank building standing on the corner of Main and First Streets in Folkston is about the only thing left in Folkston as a reminder of this gentle man. His father’s home still stands, but the banker’s home has been moved and the hideaway offices have long ago been destroyed. But in the hearts of man, a glowing monument still stands.