Peter Feinman: The George Bailey of New York History


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George Bailey is alive and well and living in New York. No, not in Seneca Falls which claims to be the inspiration for It’s A Wonderful Life‘s Bedford Falls, but in Cattaraugus, south of Buffalo. There Patrick J. Cullen serves as the president of the Bailey Savings and Loan AKA the Bank of Cattaraugus (see The Bank Around the Corner by Alan Feuer, New York Times).

There is no Potter to threaten this smallest of banks in New York State but there is the constant threat of giant chain-store-banks seeking to gobble up this one-branch bank in a one-bank community. So far those efforts have been for naught. Small banks and the neighborhood bookstores covered in a previous post harken back to the time when America was a place of neighborhoods and communities like Bedford Falls, Mayberry, and Cicely, Alaska, where everyone knew your name and there was no need to lock the door.

A. J. Schenkman, new contributor to New York History addressed the same concerns in his inaugural piece Lower Hudson Valley History: Stories on the Wind: “Where I write this column today affords me a vantage point where I can see the entire hamlet.” He went on to describe his hamlet just as Cullen could have said about his town: “It is a hamlet where people still gather at the firehouse to talk and remember; where the coffee shop is still the center of the latest gossip. Old men sit for hours sipping a cup of coffee talking about the latest news or what is happening in their lives. It is a slice of old Ulster County and a simpler time forgotten. These are some of the same people whose descendants created the history that I will be focusing on in this column. They discuss these ancestors as if the history they made was just yesterday.”

It is exactly that lack of connection by New York City to the past before 9/11 that contributes to the absence of NYS involvement with the War of 1812 Bicentennial and the Civil War Sesquicentennial (see ‘Lost Cause': NY and Confederate History, and For War of 1812 Bicentennial, Indifference from Albany.

Banker Cullen also works as an historian with money seeking to save his town. The words used to describe his actions are those one could write of an educator aware of the importance of a sense of place in the development of a person.

“From 1990 to 2003, when the historical corporation was formed, Mr. Cullen invested nearly $1 million of the bank’s money in properties in the village, often getting it back, but not always. Now, however, with grants from the state, Mr. Cullen has bought, among other things, the glorious old moldering hotel in town, and he is patiently waiting for an opportunity to put it to use.

The corporation recently acquired Mr. Cullen’s most cherished local property: the 4.5-acre plot where Cattaraugus was founded (the same spot where, not coincidentally, the campaigning Teddy Roosevelt addressed townsfolk from the back of a train). Dreaming as only a small-town banker dreams, Mr. Cullen plans to rebuild the original buildings — from the shingle maker’s shop to the stagecoach station — and open them to the public as a Colonial Williamsburg-style theme park. “If you look at Williamsburg’s Web site, they claim the park employs 3,800 people,” he said. “Give us 5 percent of that, I’ll claim success.” [If you rebuild it, they will come.]

Cattaraugans know Cattaraugus. The venture will be locally grown. “Everyone will be involved,” he said. “The bank, the church, local government, the people — everyone will have a stake. Creating that experience is what it means to be American, in a sense. It’s what it means to be from a place.”

George Bailey couldn’t have said it better. Here’s to the richest man in town. What’s that I hear? A bell ringing? We know what that means.

Photo: Jimmy Stewart as Bedford Falls banker George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life.

 

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