Ashe County’s longest-serving and last-standing homegrown financial institution turns 75 this year.
A birthday celebration was held Friday, June 20 just outside the company’s headquarters in downtown West Jefferson.
State Rep. Jonathan Jordan, Mayor Dale Baldwin, Town Manager Brantley Price, members of the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce and former and current members of the LifeStore Board of Directors were among those in attendance at the celebration.
Longevity and commitment to Ashe County were the themes voiced by speakers during the event.
“You know, 1939 seems like an unusual year to start Ashe Building and Loan Association (LifeStore’s original name),” President and CEO of LifeStore Bob Washburn said. “The nation was working its way out of a decade-long depression that saw several banks fail here in Ashe County. And while the economy was improving, things were still tough.”
Washburn noted that the company started out on the top floor of the Parker Tie building and remained there until 1964, when the headquarters moved to its current location.
“Before the Great Depression there were 15,000 banks in the United States,” Jim Gambill, whose father was one of the original founders, said. “By the end of it, 11,000 of them had failed…$140 billion was gone and that was in 1930 dollars.”
Gambill vocally illustrated just how fast the world was quickly changing in 1938-39, and how the country has changed from then to now.
“Nobody at that original meeting had ever seen a Little League baseball game,” Gambill said. “They’d never heard of Batman; never seen “The Wizard of Oz. No lady had ever worn a pair of nylon stockings. People had heard of television but nobody had ever heard of CBS, because it didn’t exist yet.”
Gambill noted that if anyone made the long trek to Mount Rushmore, they would’ve been greeted by three faces instead of the usual four.
“Teddy Roosevelt wouldn’t be up there like the rest of those things until next year,” Gambill said.
Today, LifeStore operates four branches in Ashe County and one in Boone. They also operate insurance operations in six counties: Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell, Surry, Watauga and Wilkes counties.
Fifty-two percent of the company is owned by the depositors and more than half of the employees have been with the company over 10 years.
Washburn was quick to stress LifeStore’s ongoing commitment to its roots in Ashe County, something other North Carolina banks have fallen away from in recent years.
“Our 40 support jobs are located here instead of places like Charlotte, Raleigh, Cincinnati or San Francisco,” Washburn said. “These mountains are our home, the schools are where our children learn and the churches are where we worship. We have a desire to leave it better for our children and grandchildren.”
“I believe there will always be a role for a hometown institution like LifeStore,” Washburn said. “We have the technology we need to deliver the services our customers demand and we’re committed to staying current and providing superior customer service.”
In honor of the 75th birthday celebration, LifeStore employees Judy Current and Martin Little assembled a time capsule to be opened at the company’s centennial in 2039.
Among the items placed in the capsule were an annual report, a toy, currency and a photo and essays from Ashe County High School’s Class of 2014.
In addition to Washburn and Gambill, other speakers at the celebration included Baldwin, Jan Caddell, Bill Ashley and Little.
Alan Bulluck can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @albulluck.