The Bank of Montreal Haliburton branch in 1966. The bank has occupied four locations in its 100-year history which it is celebrating on Friday March 22 from 10 to 11 a.m. /Photo courtesy of the Haliburton Highlands Museum

Haliburton BMO to celebrate storied 100-year history

By Jenn Watt

Published March 19 2019

The Haliburton Highlands Museum has a file folder an inch thick filled with photocopies of newspaper clippings and photographs of the 100-year history of the Haliburton Bank of Montreal branch.

The bundle of papers tells the story of change and growth for the branch as well as perseverance in the face of tragedy and loss.

The Haliburton BMO branch has occupied four locations since 1919 starting first in what is now Home Hardware at the corner of Highland and Maple. As the customer base grew it moved to the former Daniel Gorrie store on the south side of Highland Street in 1921 then to the north side of Highland Street in 1947 which was rebuilt following a devastating fire. In 1980 BMO settled into its current location in front of Foodland on the south side of Highland – a place manager Richard Wannan points out was specially created to reflect the flavour with wood panels integrated inside high ceilings and open spaces.

Wannan said approaching the centenary of the Haliburton branch has been not only interesting but also rewarding as he learns more about the history of the bank and the people who have supported it for so long.

“Just seeing how the place has evolved. Seeing the events that have happened here. Most branches have not gone through what we’ve gone through” he said last Wednesday in an interview with the Echo.

The Haliburton branch burned down in 1956 in the fire that took the life of fire chief Thomas Chambers. He perished in the building’s basement as he worked to extinguish the blaze.

In 1962 bank manager Eric McConnell was killed when a man claiming to need a loan brought a gun into the bank and shot him. Before he died he instructed the staff to set off the bank alarm.

Four years later as the town was still recovering from McConnell’s murder another man robbed the bank – this time thwarted by a group of armed local people who surrounded his hotel room preventing his escape until police could arrive.

The anniversary has given staff a chance to hear stories from people who have been clients for decades and residents who at one time were employees. They’ve talked about how things used to go from record keeping in deposit books to handwriting interest calculations for clients.

As with nearly every industry banking has changed dramatically in the last decade with technology removing much of the transactional nature of business. Pay cheques are directly deposited bills can be paid on the phone or online people use their smartphones to deposit cheques and the ATM to access cash.

A far cry from 1919 when BMO was the only bank in town. Literally.

At that time BMO served all of the surrounding villages with the closest banks being in Fenelon Falls and Lindsay. Wannan said likely before the bank was established people would depend on agreements between neighbours trade and barter to get things done.

The post office had some banking capability he said.

With the change in how people bank the branch itself has taken on a new role.

“It enables us to have better conversations. It’s not as transactional; we’re becoming more service based” he said. The six local staff can take more time with clients and can help them navigate something like forgotten passwords or setting up their online banking.

Stories from copies of the Haliburton Echo back in 1959 when the branch celebrated its 40th anniversary reflect the role the bank played in the community at the time.

“Since its establishment here 40 years ago the Haliburton B of M has seen a long succession of public-spirited managers serving at the office” the story published March 19 1959 in the Echo reads before listing the managers by name and term served.

Wannan said the importance of public service is as important today as it would have been then.

“When you look at a branch manager especially in smaller communities branch managers were pillars of the community back when they used to do handshake deals” he said.

“We don’t have that flexibility like we used to but it’s still being seen in the community as you are part of the community. … It’s to be within the community because that’s what our role is.”

Haliburton’s BMO has been a regular sponsor of charitable endeavours and lent space to groups that were fundraising or raising awareness. The bank sponsors the not-for-profit award through the Chamber of Commerce for example and last summer supported Honey Week at Abbey Gardens.

And there is still the special connection between staff and the community which a small town never loses.

On Friday March 22 BMO is spending an hour celebrating its 100th birthday with cake and refreshments a special guest celebrating his 101st birthday old equipment and marketing materials to peruse and most importantly a chance to tell stories. Everyone is invited to join in from 10 to 11 a.m. at the branch on Highland Street.

“The stories are so cool because they care” Wannan said of clients he’s been hearing from. “That’s what the bank meant to everyone. It wasn’t just ‘the bank.’”

In another 100 years from now what does he think the Echo will be writing for BMO’s 200th anniversary?

Technology is changing so quickly he said he could hardly guess the specifics.

“All I could hope is that the continuance of a small town mentality remains within the organization and the position because it’s people helping people – people working with the community – that makes it strong” he said.