The Story of Bass River Savings Bank: A Forgotten Piece of History

What the bank originally looked like.

It began its life inside what is today a residential home. It would go on to eventually become the largest homegrown bank chain on Cape Cod. However despite operating for more than a century the name Bass River Savings Bank is largely forgotten. At one point it had seven locations and close to 20,000 customers and its locations are still standing today for other uses. This is the story of a Cape Cod original which was lost to the changing times.

The story of the Bass River Savings Bank goes back to the time just after the Civil War. In 1874 David Akin, who was at the time president of the First National Bank of Yarmouth, offered to help fund a new bank near Bass River at what is today 1368 Route 28, next to the general store run by Stephen Wing. The tiny harbor village’s residents were anxious to have their own banking establishment close by necessitating its creation.

Akin would be a trustee of the bank however someone else would take on the role of its first president, David Kelley. Kelley was a well-respected man in town and founder of the South Yarmouth Quaker Church. The new banking establishment would not sit in a brick or concrete building like so many today. This bank would make its debut it a 22×28-foot two-story wooden structure with a piazza, looking very much like any other home of the day. On July 1, 1874 Bass River Savings Bank opened its doors for the first time and by the end of the initial business day there were six savings accounts with sums totaling $1,190 ($25,100 in2018).

By the end of its second year in existence the fledgling bank would have deposits topping $200,000 ($4.5 million in 2018). Bass River Savings Bank was quickly a success. It was blessed to have stable management as David Kelley would remain president until 1888 when he was succeeded by Hiram Loring who himself would manage the bank until 1907. He was succeeded by Charles Baker who was in charge until 1931. This meant that the bank had only three presidents during its first fifty-seven years.

What the banks second location now looks like, the Cultural Center of Cape Cod.

After half a century in business it was becoming difficult to perform duties for increasingly large numbers of customers in the 22×28-foot building. In September 1929 plans were started for a new building for the bank. Initially it was to be built on the same spot as the current building, however that was soon changed. A location only a few hundred yards away at 307 Old Main Street, then just known as Main Street, was chosen to house a new Bass River Savings Bank made of brick. The move to its new home was completed February 28, 1931 while the original building was purchased by M.L. Morris who would turn it into an antique shop.

The success continued for Bass River Savings Bank and in December 1937 they opened a second location in a prime spot at 338 Main Street in Hyannis. The expansion of the bank progressed with new units opening in Dennis Port, Osterville, and a second branch in Yarmouth. In 1957 things were temporarily halted as the bank attempted to merge with the Wellfleet Savings Bank but it was denied. However the forward progress would not be denied.

By 1963 Bass River Savings Bank had more than 16,000 customers with deposits totaling over $37 million ($304 million in 2018). The additions of branches in Orleans and the new Cape Cod Mall in 1972 meant that the establishment was the largest bank chain on Cape Cod. That title would be relatively short-lived as the bank began experiencing some blow-back by giving out several bad loans. By 1976 Robert Wheeler had taken over as bank president and was tasked with righting the ship. Unfortunately despite his efforts the writing was soon on the wall for the Cape’s largest bank.

What the original bank looks like today.

In the summer of 1982 rumors began to swirl of a possible merger between Bass River Savings Bank and Neworld Bank based out to Boston. In September the merger became official. At the time despite the years of declining business Bass River Savings Bank still held assets of $250 million ($652 million in 2018). In February 1983 the bank chains would merge with Neworld Bank becoming hugely successful over the next several years. However in a volatile arena such as banking companies and be here today and gone tomorrow. Neworld Bank went the way of Bass River Savings Bank some years later and eventually became Citizens Bank.

The second South Yarmouth location of Bass River Savings Bank would have another life. After more than fifteen years of being abandoned plans got underway to put it to use. In 2000 the idea for a cultural center was floated. It would hold local art exhibits, programs, events, and more. Though it would take more than six years and $700,000 worth of renovations in 2007 the Cultural Center of Cape Cod would open. It would keep some of the charm of the old bank, including using the vaults as ways to showcase art. Since its opening the Cultural Center has seen more than 200,000 visitors and has proven itself to be a fitting second chapter to the former Bass River Savings Bank building.

Though Cape Cod Five was opened first, and is still open to this day, the legacy of Bass River Savings Bank is just as interesting and in some ways lesser known. From its beginnings in a wooden two-story building, to its days of dominating the Cape’s financial scene, this former banking giant carved out an amazing story. Next time one is stopping to visit the Cultural Center of Cape Cod take a moment to gaze up at the facade of the building where the name Bass River Savings Bank is still engraved in cursive writing.

By Christopher Setterlund
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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