The deserts of the great Southwest are thought to be inhospitable areas, where little grows except the hardiest plants and animals. This austere environment challenged the earliest pioneers as they crossed from east to west.
Financial services were already in the Comstock Lode, but came a bit later to Reno. When Nevada joined the Union in 1864, Wells Fargo had ten offices in the new state. The Central Pacific Railroad formally established the town in June 1868, and Wells Fargo’s first Express agent, N. Hammond, arrived a month later. Stages and the pony express, run by Wells Fargo, connected Reno with Carson City and Virginia City.
In 1902 a group of investors pooled resources to start the Farmers & Merchants Bank. Farmers & Merchants Bank. They selected 26- year old Richard Kirman (scroll down) to lead the new bank. Kirman had previously turned around a failing savings bank, had served in the State Legislature, and would become Governor of Nevada. With Kirman in charge, Farmers & Merchants received National charter number 7038 on November 16, 1903.
Nevada’s economy was as tough as the mining and agriculture at its center. Farmers and Merchants quickly sought to develop a bigger, broader economic base. In addition to providing credit to expanding business, employees were expected to participate in community activities. In 1907, for example, Kirman himself was elected Mayor of Reno. Following two decades of successful growth, Farmers and Merchants changed its name in 1929 to First National Bank in Reno—proof of the bank’s and the region’s broadening economy.
Nevada did not escape the Great Depression. Lieutenant Governor Morley Griswold (scroll down) declared a banking holiday for State banks in Nevada in November 1932. The closure was optional for First National, which did not take it. The bank opened for business as usual and satisfied customer requests.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a national banking holiday the following March, First National was strong enough that it opened the first day after the holiday. Of the five banks based in the Reno area, First National was only one to survive the banking crisis in 1932-33.
Seeing a need for stronger capital and talent, First National Bank in Reno merged with Transamerica in 1934. Transformation continued for both First National and for Nevada’s economy. Geographically, First National added more branches to communities that had lost pre-Depression banks. Smaller banks in Elko and Yer ing ton hoped to join the First National family as well. In 1937, First National acquired First State Bank of Las Vegas, completing a reach across the entire state. With its wider view, the bank changed its name to First National Bank of Nevada.
Impressive growth followed the boom in Nevada gaming, financed in large part by First National. The El Rancho Hotel in Las Vegas was the first casino built off the original Fremont Street core, and began what is now known as “The Strip.” Construction in 1941 was financed by First National.
At the same time in Reno, Bill Harrah applied for his first loan. First National Bank of Nevada provided the credit, and in 1955, when Harrah wanted to expand to the shores of Lake Tahoe, it was First National again that who provided the credit. The State of Nevada and First National Bank of Nevada grew together.
The relationship with Transamerica migrated to First America in 1958, which became Western Bancorporation in 1961 and First Interstate Bancorp 20 years later. First National Bank of Nevada became First Interstate Bank of Nevada. The 1996 merger with Wells Fargo completed the circle between early banking in Nevada and the biggest bank in Nevada.
The impact of Farmers and Merchants, and later, First National Bank of Nevada, is still quite visible. The Reno skyline prominently features City Hall, originally built as First National’s headquarters in 1963. And the glitter of the Las Vegas Strip, begun with First National Bank’s involvement, is the clearest legacy.