TOP PHOTO: The First National Bank fire was fought for several hours until after daybreak.

First National Bank caught fire in the wee hours of Wed., Dec. 29, 1971. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF WLAF’S CHARLIE HUTSON)

LAFOLLETTE, TN (WLAF) – Wednesday, December 29, 1971. For those of a certain age and/or someone with an interest in La Follette history, you’ll likely remember that today marks the 50th anniversary of the fire that destroyed First National Bank and did damage to other businesses on the southwest block of Central and Tennessee.

“I was working as a night clerk at the Russell Hotel (where Russell Tower now stands on South Tennessee Avenue) at the time, and saw the whole thing, from the tree on fire in the lobby to the building going to the ground,” said Cathy Foster, who later worked at the La Follette Press. Foster goes on to say, “I remember we had one couple staying at the hotel who totally freaked out, and checked out of the hotel at 1 or 2 a.m., fleeing in fear. The rest of us sat in the lobby and watched, and I remember Mrs. Russell in her nightgown, being very distressed.

WLAF’s Charlie Hutson shared that it was Foster who called in the fire to the La Follette Fire Department. Upon arrival, LFD requested mutual aid from several fire departments including Lake City (Rocky Top) according to Hutson. He adds that the fire was fought for several hours until after daybreak. “The clock that set on the South Tennessee Avenue-West Central Avenue corner at the second floor level stopped at 3:58am. That’s when the power to the clock went out,” said Hutson.

This the clock Charlie Hutson references that stopped at 3:28am the morning of the fire.

“I remember shooting footage on an old Super 8 film camera that I had as a stringer for WBIR-TV back then, and shipping it to the station on the Greyhound bus the next morning. I think they used a few seconds of it on the evening news the next day, but I can’t be sure, it was so long ago.  But I wasn’t working at the Press yet, and didn’t shoot any still photos,” added Foster.

“Deputy State Fire Marshall Marion Wampler’s report pointed toward the cause as a Christmas tree in the bank lobby. At the time, there were strong doubts that the tree was the blame,” said Hutson. After the fire, there were some buildings that remained until the Goodyear building fire in November of 1976. It too was a total loss. The Goodyear store was opposite FNB on the west corner of the block.

The late Harold Branam, a WLAF alum, worked for the Interstate Life and Accident Insurance Company that had an office above the bank. Also housed on the second floor was an office for the UMWA, the United Mine Workers of America according to Branam. He and a few other folks surmised that the fire was intentionally started in the UMWA office to destroy documents. It was almost two years to the day (Dec. 31, 1969) that Jock Yablonski, an opponent of UMWA president Tony Boyle, his wife and daughter were murdered in their Pennsylvania home. Yablonski’s murder was plotted in La Follette.

In those days, the bank was closed on Wednesday. Bank President Clarence Farris was most proud that the bank was back open for business the next day on Thursday morning. Farris, with some help from other banks, reopened in a trailer located near the rubble. This photo is where they were transferring money and documents to the temporary bank in the old United 5 & 10 located on North Tennessee Avenue. Notice the police officer with his shotgun. The bank was there from 1972 until 1979. The temporary building was later razed and is now a parking lot next to the Royal Lunch & Billiards.

Rhonda Longmire began working at the bank in 1975 at the age of 20 as a bank teller at the temporary location on North Tennessee Avenue. She recalled that people had donated pieces of carpet to cover the floor and it was “duct taped together” to make a “carpet of many colors.” First National Bank became Community Trust Bank more than a decade ago, and Longmire is the Market President.

Winn’s Hair Corral was located in the building behind the ladder.

Winn’s Hair Corral was located next to the bank. “I lived on Nevada Avenue, and when I realized what was going on, I walked down into town. I stood across the street from First National Bank and watched it burn. That was very early that morning before daylight,” said Winona “Winn” Petrey Miller.

“My shop suffered a lot of smoke damage, and I had just installed new equipment, hair dryers and all,” said Winn. Some of the men from Bobby Queener’s furniture store, on the opposite end of the block from the bank, carried everything up to Winn’s house. She eventually reopened in the same location.

Here’s a “before” photo from the late 1960s.

“I walked into the shop about 8am that morning, and the phone was ringing. A woman from Duff was calling asking what time she could come by and get her hair fixed,” said a laughing Winn. The woman had yet to hear about the fire.

Children of the bank employees had been warned to be extra careful around the time before the fire. The FBI sent out a warning to the bank that they had information leading to believe the bank may be a target for a robbery. There were parking spaces up next to the curb in those days, and Sheriff Rose Kitts sat in a parked unmarked cruiser in front of the bank all that week in disguise with a shotgun across his lap.

“Dad had a borrowed shotgun that he kept in the bank vault. Aside from the fire, he was most concerned about that shotgun,” said Dr. Jim Farris, son of bank president Clarence Farris. That ended well. So well, Farris was featured in a photo on the front page of the La Follette Press the next Thursday.

Firefighters here are working from the South Tennessee Avenue side of the bank. Russell Hotel, later razed and rebuilt at Russell Tower, is on the right.

Farris shares that Judge Conrad Troutman, a member of the bank’s board of directors, was standing looking at the aftermath Wednesday morning when Allen Carden walked up. Carden asked if the notes had been burned. The quick witted Troutman said all but the A’s through the C’s. Carden never said a word and just walked away.

The corner where the bank sat was cleared and sat empty for nearly a decade.
First National Bank reopened in its new offices at the same location in 1979 and later had a major renovation in the 1990s. The bank was sold to Community Trust Bank around 2010.

The building the bank rented on North Tennessee Avenue belong to Fred Hatmaker. The bank closed at 2pm, and Fred was visiting with Clarence Farris one day about closing time. Dr. Farris recounts the story that at about 10 or 15 after two, Hatmaker said, “You’re closed. I’d better go on.” Clarence Farris said, “I’ll lock you out.” Hatmaker shot back saying, “That’s OK, I have a key.” The bank had new locks before the day was out. (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED – 12/29/2021-6AM-PHOTOS COURTESY OF WLAF’S CHARLIE HUTSON)

One Reply to “Today marks 50th anniversary of FNB fire”

  1. Great story and photos. I was living in Italy by then and until now, I never knew what had happened to
    the old bank. I liked it better than the new one. Times change.

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