Bank Survives Setbacks; Shapes City

One downtown Haverhill bank played a pivotal role in the shaping of modern Haverhill. It’s a story that involves shoe workers, a different failed bank, planned construction of Interstate 495, city hall fisticuffs and urban renewal.

You may know Kendall C. “Ken” Smith as past president and current chairman of the board of Pentucket Bank, but you may not know is he is an avid “scrapbooker.” Smith opened his scrapbook to Open Mike Show viewers and listeners Monday, March 24, and revealed many otherwise long-lost secrets.

“I stayed in banking my whole life. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I worked 52 years as a banker and I enjoyed every minute of it, especially the time I spent at Pentucket Bank,” Smith said, opening the dialog.

Smith grew up on School Street in Groveland and went to Perley High School, while many of his classmates went to Haverhill High School after Groveland closed its own high school. He did sell hot dogs though at Haverhill High School football games. It was the beginning of a long association with Haverhill.

After working in Haverhill shoe shops for three years and upon graduating from Bentley College, Smith was hired in 1958 by Edward Ingalls, vice president of Merrimack Valley National Bank. The 163 Merrimack Street bank is currently the location of Scott Gleason’s law office and the same building where WHAV first went on the air from the second floor in 1947.

Little Known Back Story Reveals Bank Naming

A few years before Smith went to work on, what he calls, “the bottom rung” at Merrimack Valley National Bank, Pentucket Savings Bank and City Five Cent Savings Bank completed a merger in 1952. The resulting “Pentucket Five Cents Savings Bank” brought a new bank name to downtown Haverhill.

For years, Pentucket Savings Bank and City Five Cent Savings Bank were neighbors at 42 and 46 Washington Street respectively. La Posh Salon & Spa and Wang’s Table now occupy those spaces. City Five Cent Savings Bank was chartered during March, 1870, and by 1917 it had $3.7 million in deposits. Pentucket Bank was chartered March 17, 1891 and had $2.3 million in deposits by 1917. It first operated for two hours each Saturday afternoon in the back of the Second National Bank, 35 Washington St. (now Toma’s Bar). Prominent Haverhillite and former Mayor James Hazen Carleton was one of its board members.

“It’s funny, the smaller banks, ones that got pushed to the back rooms literally, are still the ones that represent us today. That says a lot about mutually owned banks, said Open Mike Show host Tim Coco. Coco noted that the Haverhill Co-operative Savings and Loan Association (now Haverhill Bank) similarly began within the former Haverhill National Bank.

Although it was larger, Smith says, “The City Five had a few problems.” After the merger, Pentucket moved into the offices of City Five Cents Savings Bank—a location it would keep until the 1980s.

Washington Street was Haverhill’s banking district.

“It was important to stay in the shoe district because that was where all the business came from. All the employees—and there were many, many employees in all those buildings—did business with all the banks and that’s why all the banks were centered right there,” he said.

Changing Times Suggest Need for New Bank Building

“We were becoming a mobile society and we needed a drive-up,” Smith said.  As such, in January, 1955, a conflicted Pentucket Bank board announced plans for a new two-story branch with walk-up and drive-up options, purchased Washington Square property next to the post office and then-comfort station and proceeded to demolish an existing building the following April.

While awaiting regulatory approval for the new bank branch, board members became aware in July, 1956, of plans for a new Interstate 495 “freeway” (see “Haverhill’s Transformation by I-495 with Conflicts, Politics for Good Measure”) which could prompt changes to Routes 97, 110 and 133. “That could throw a monkey wrench into our plans,” Smith said.

By the following January, Pentucket’s board decided to move forward. By this time, two decisions were made—the new branch would become the main office and it would now include a basement rather than be built on a slab.

‘Day of Hell’ Precedes City Hall Fist Fight

One day in July, 1958, Smith said, was the “day of hell as far as the bank was concerned because we received notice from the city that they were going to seize the property and make a parking lot.” The city claimed the eminent domain action would result in 120 parking spots.

Haverhill Mayor Harold Wright, city councilors and City Manager Gilbert D. Chavenelle went through the motions, but “We were dead in the water,” Smith said. Incidentally, Chavenelle had recently recovered from a City Council vote of 5-2 to suspend him for trading in a damaged police cruiser for a used “demonstration vehicle.”

With no clear resolution in sight, Pentucket Bank’s directors decided in September, 1958, to place building plans on hold until at least 1959. Even though the city hadn’t yet paid for the Washington Square property, directors decided a new branch might be established at 35 Merrimack St.

“It is my understanding that when we visited with the mayor to discuss this situation that one of our trustees was quite vocal and the mayor, who was Harold Wright at the time—this is legend, this is rumor—told him to sit down. He said he wouldn’t and (the mayor) said I’m going to make you and exchanged a couple of blows, and down on the floor one of the trustees went and that was the end of that meeting.”

Besides purchasing the property and demolishing an existing building there, the bank had ordered a $75,000 vault.  In court, Pentucket sought $90,000 to give up Washington Square, but was initially awarded $57,000. The city appealed, but “we ended up getting another $10,000 from the city,” Smith said.

Bank Reluctantly Settles on Merrimack Street, but Faces Urban Renewal Threat

As early as 1958, the Haverhill City Council green-lighted a proposed urban renewal program. With those plans in flux, however, Pentucket Five Cents Savings Bank decided to spend $400,000 in January, 1960, to purchase 35 Merrimack St.—then home to the Haverhill Foundation and Reinhold Shoe Store.

The bank went on to spend another $300,000 to complete second floor renovations. Interestingly, Ken explains, the bank did not demolish the building, but rather built a new façade over it. The previously ordered stainless steel vault ended up in the renovated building.

“We had close to a million dollars into that building and when urban renewal and Merrimack Street came about, we just said ‘you think we had a fight over that parking lot, you’re in for one hell of a fight if you take this $1 million building that we just got done building and now you want to take it away from us and knock it down. We were going to fight tooth and nail on that one,’” Smith said.

The Haverhill Housing Authority, the agency responsible for urban renewal apparently caved. The housing authority originally planned to demolish every building on Merrimack Street except for Pentucket Bank, Haverhill Savings Bank (later Family Mutual Savings Bank and today TD Bank), Haverhill National Bank and Woolworth’s department store.

As it turned out, urban renewal ran out of money and much of the street was spared. However in the total demolition zone on the north side of Merrimack Street near White’s Corner, the only building to survive was Pentucket Bank.

In the end, Smith said, it was probably best Pentucket Bank ended up on Merrimack Street. No one yet knew during the mid-1950s the Washington Street shoe shops would all go out of business. Although construction of Interstate 495 would not ultimately disrupt downtown streets, Pentucket Bank became one of the first to locate a branch at Westgate Center, adjacent to 495. Smith joined Pentucket Bank in 1984 and later became its president. The bank still owns 35 Merrimack St., but houses only its operations department and community room there. It moved into a new building—built for the former BayBank—at One Merrimack St.

Maybe this article will end up in one of Ken Smith’s expansive scrapbooks.

The Open Mike Show, broadcast live from WHAV’s Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, is heard Monday nights between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. A video simulcast is seen on the Internet at and Haverhill Community Television Channel 22.