Commitment to the Community: WSB celebrates 125 years


BY: Norah Machia
Watertown Savings Bank was established in 1893 by a group of city residents who wanted to start a financial institution that would benefit the community. After 125 years of service, its mission has remained the same.  

We have evolved with the times in terms of products and services,” said Mark R. Lavarnway, Watertown Savings Bank president and chief executive officer. “But we have maintained that same culture of local management, local decisions, and local support.”

     The name of the bank has never changed, and neither has its corporate structure. Today, Watertown Savings Bank still operates with a board of trustees, and has no stockholders. The trustees live and work in Jefferson County, which makes them very knowledgeable about the financial needs of the region, he said.

    “We know the community, and we know the people,” Mr. Lavarnway said. “We make good, sound business decisions based on our knowledge of the community and its needs.”

      Watertown Savings Bank has nine locations throughout Jefferson County (including four in Watertown). The bank employs approximately 120 people, and has more than $660 million in assets. It retains the largest deposit market share in Jefferson County, and for eight consecutive years, Watertown Savings Bank has been the top mortgage lender in the county. It has also been recognized as a top commercial lender.

      It has also kept up with the changing technology in the banking industry, offering a wide range of online, mobile and electronic services. Internet banking, mobile deposits, and online bill pay are examples of how “technology has changed the way a customer does banking,” Mr. Lavarnway said.

     But even with those changes over the years, including the introduction of ATM machines in the 1980s, Watertown Savings Bank continued to expand its workforce at a time when many other banks were downsizing. The bank has always made its customers a top priority. “A customer can call me directly, and I’ll answer the phone. You won’t find that at most other banks,” Mr. Lavarnway said.   

     Watertown Savings Bank first opened its doors at 17 Washington St., which was known as the Marble Block at the time, and is now part of the Watertown Family YMCA building.

     It opened during a time period when banks were set up to specialize in only one or two types of services. For example, some were set up strictly for savings accounts, while others were established for business loans.

     That type of banking system allowed for people to serve on the board of directors of more than one bank, because they were not considered “competitors” in those early days. “Some of our own founders also served on other bank boards,” Mr. Lavarnway said.

     In fact, Watertown Savings Bank only offered savings accounts and first-time mortgages in the beginning, he said. It wasn’t until decades later, following nationwide changes in the banking industry, that Watertown Savings Bank was able to start offering other services, such as checking accounts, and personal and commercial loans.

    Many of the bank’s founders were well-known businessmen, lawyers and politicians. Byron B. Taggart served as the first president of the bank from 1893 to 1897. He was head of Taggart Brothers Paper Co., a two-term mayor of the city of Watertown, and a veteran of the Civil War.

     The bank’s original board of trustees included Allen C. Beach (lieutenant governor of New York in 1858); Levi H. Brown (earned the distinction of being the oldest practicing attorney in New York state when he died in 1903); and Henry Ball (produce dealer).

   Also, Alfred D. Remington (a paper manufacturer); John C. Streeter (city mayor and real estate businessman); Albert Bushnell and Issac P. Powers (merchants); George H. Babcock and John Carpenter (carriage manufacturers); Silas L. George (jeweler); and Augustus Goodale (justice of the peace).

      Bank founder and trustee Wooster Sherman was credited in helping to obtain the bank’s certificate of authorization from the state on Oct. 3, 1893.     

      Several streets in the city of Watertown were named after these prominent families. They include Ball Avenue, Sherman Street, and Goodale Street. The connection with city street names is even reflected among trustees who served decades later, such as John B. Harris and Frederick F. Bugbee (Harris Drive and Bugbee Drive).

      An early supporter of the bank was Watertown native Roswell P. Flower, who served as governor of New York state from 1892 to 1894. He joined the board of trustees a few years after the bank opened, and his family name is traced back to Flower Avenue West and Flower Avenue East. Among the many memorabilia items at Watertown Savings Bank’s main office is the savings passport book that belonged to the former governor, whose first deposit of $250 was recorded on July 20, 1897. 

     During its early years, Watertown Savings Bank was open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Fridays, and 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturdays. The Saturday evening hours were set up to accommodate city residents who were working six days a week at the factories, mills, and manufacturing plants. The only free time they had to get to the bank was Saturday evening, Mr. Lavarnway noted.

     In 1921, the bank relocated to the Woolworth Building, a new downtown location that was four times the size of the original bank office. By that time, the bank had experienced growth of more than $4 million in assets.

     Construction on a new headquarters for the bank started in 1959 after the bank purchased two properties on Clinton Street, creating “Dividend Drive” which allowed customers to enter the bank’s parking lots from Clinton or Mullin Streets. That new building opened in 1960 with 30 employees and $32 million in total assets, and ushered in a new era for further growth.

      By 2001, the bank was ready for a larger headquarters, and its current two-story, 22,500 square-foot main office at 111 Clinton Street was built. By that time, the bank had increased its workforce to 75 employees and its assets to $220 million.    

     Last year, Watertown Savings Bank was recognized as “Top Community Supporter” in New York state by Banking New York magazine for its large charitable donations throughout the area. In 2017, the bank donated more than $335,000 for a variety of nonprofit organizations and events.