Sunday, March 4, 2012

(Credit Union) Historic Boston

As this last week was my partner (and fellow history nerd) Allison's February break from teaching, we decided it'd be fun to take a short trip to Boston from our home in northern Vermont. Alli is a social studies teacher with a particular passion for photographing old New England cemeteries (some samples of her work in Vermont can be seen here), so our activities were primarily focused around the various sites on the Freedom Trail. The colonial-era buildings and burying grounds were quite interesting, but, fortunately for myself and the readers of this blog, she was kind enough to oblige me in taking some detours to locate a few sites of historical importance to the credit union movement.

My quest was initially inspired by the knowledge that a plaque honoring Edward Filene was located somewhere on the Boston Common. Since that park was on our itinerary anyway, I found a webpage that provided the plaque's location, and we set out in search of Ed.

Unfortunately, the directions on that page turned out to be a filthy lie; the plaque is nowhere near the intersection of Tremont and Temple Streets. After making a few loops, we stopped into the visitors center, but the woman behind the desk was clueless as to the existence of the memorial. Though it was beginning to feel like a wild goose chase, we decided to circle through the Common one last time.

Victory at Last!
This time, lady luck was on our side, and we stumbled upon the memorial near the intersection of Carver and Boyleston across the street from a piano store and adjacent to the Central Burying Ground. Erected by the Credit Union National Association in 1959 (25 years after the organization's founding at Estes Park, CO in 1934), the monument reads:

Edward A Filene
1860-1937
Author, Scholar, Outstanding Citizen of Boston and Public Benefactor
Acknowledged as the Founder of the Credit Union Movement in the United States
This Tablet Erected by the Credit Union National Association
May 1959


Fresh off of this success, I next decided to find out if there was a memorial or other information in the neighborhood about Filene's major collaborator in getting the Massachusetts' credit union law passed, Bank Commissioner Pierre Jay. Figuring the State House (a mere two blocks away) would be a good place to start, we trudged up the hill and through the Hooker Entrance. Once past security, I began to ask one of the guards where I should go to begin my search when Alli nudged me and pointed. Following her finger, I found myself face to face with Jay's mug.
Pierre Jay
Also erected in 1959, the plaque was intended to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the credit union law. Its inscription reads:

IN GRATEFUL MEMORY OF THE MAN,
WHOSE VISION, COURAGE AND DETERMINATION
GAVE TO MASSACHUSETTS
THE FIRST CREDIT UNION LAW IN THE UNITED STATES

Intriguingly, while the Filene memorial was sponsored by CUNA, the Jay plaque in the Statehouse came about as a result of the efforts of the Credit Union League of Massachusetts (CULM). To the casual observer, the creation of two plaques sponsored by two different organizations in the same year to honor two different credit union movement figures might not seem particularly meaningful. However, given the nature of the relationship between CUNA and the CULM in the late 1950s, there's far more at play here than meets the eye.

In fact, the Massachusetts movement has the unique distinction of having consisted of two (often hostile) credit union leagues from the 1930s until the 1990s. The Credit Union League of Massachusetts was founded in the 1920s, and was one of the most successful and well-developed leagues by the time CUNA was established in 1934. However, the leadership of the CULM were unhappy with the way the CUNA founding convention in Estes Park had been organized and conducted by Edward Filene, and so they refused to join the national organization.

In response, CUNA founded its own league in Massachusetts, which the MCUL often referred to derisively as the "Rump League." By the late 1950s, about 3/4 of the state's movement was aligned with the MCUL, while the remaining quarter comprised the CUNA faction.

I'm actually in the midst of writing an essay outlining the narrative of this "tale of two leagues" situation in greater detail (keep your eyes out in the coming weeks, dear readers), but even a cursory understanding of the conflict suggests the plaques are of great significance. Viewed through this lens, the CUNA-sponsored Filene monument can be understood as a celebration of the famous Bostonian's contribution to the creation of a unified national movement. That focus suggests to the viewer that the founding of CUNA twenty-five years earlier was a pivotal, watershed moment for credit unionism, after which the credit union movement and CUNA should be understood to be one and the same.

By contrast, the MCUL's celebration of Jay's role in helping to secure the first credit union law in Massachusetts fifty years earlier posits that 1909, not 1934, should be seen as the pivotal moment for credit unionism. Rather than celebrating the founding of the national organization that they refused to join, the MCUL used Jay's memory in a roundabout way to assert their continued autonomy and to promote a state-centric (as opposed to national) view of the credit union movement.

After dragging Allison all over the Common and the Statehouse in search of the monuments and documents related to them (I was able to find the text of the Resolve by which the Massachusetts legislature authorized the Jay plaque with the assistance of a cheerful archivist in the State Library), we spent most of the afternoon checking out some of the sites on her bucket list. However, before the day was done, we spent some a bit of time searching out the site of original Credit Union National Extension Bureau (CUNEB) offices.

H/T CUNAverse Blog
Prior to the establishment of CUNA in 1934, much of the credit union movement's organization and advocacy work was carried out under the auspices of the Credit Union National Extension Bureau (CUNEB). Funded by Filene and with Roy Bergengren at its helm, the CUNEB commenced operations in Room 23 at 5 Park Square in July of 1921.

1922-1923... Drat!
After an initial misdirect to 5 Park STREET (the current site of a Catholic church), a quick Google search showed that there is, in fact, a Park Square building. However, when we got there, a plaque in the lobby revealed that construction on it had not begun until 1922. According to Google Maps, there was no other "Park Square" in Boston, so we gave up and went to dinner at a fantastic Italian place in the North End.

Later, I was able to solve the mystery of what happened to 5 Park Square. In Bergengren's memoirs, he notes that the building itself was owned by Franklin Savings Bank, and that information led me to an appraisal of the building from 1977 that had been helpfully digitized by the Boston Public Library. As it turns out, the building, along with many others in the area, was demolished as part of an urban renewal project in the late 1970s. As a consolation prize, the appraisal does contain a few photographs of the building, but, alas, Bergengren's hope that "when the organized credit union movement ... become[s] history-conscious ... [and a] Committee on Historical Sites [is] appointed [that] will search for appropriate places for bronze tablets ... I hope they will not overlook 5 Park Square" will never be fulfilled. (Bergengren, Crusade, 35-36)

As the stomping grounds of Ed Filene and the center of some of the earliest credit union activism in the United States, Boston is a fascinating spot to visit for folks with an interest in credit union history. I was able to find a few items of interest in the forty-eight hours I was in town, but I'm certain there are still many unturned stones. My hope is to return soon, and I welcome any suggestions readers may have as to what to look for and do the next time I find myself in Bean Town.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Matt,

    I came across this outstanding article via a LinkedIn group about Credit Unions. I am a vendor to credit unions located in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and am interested in their history as well. I've made a number of trips to Manchester, NH, where America's Credit Union Museum is located in the house where the first CU in the U.S. was operated out of, from 1908 to I think approximately 1925. I'm not sure if you've visited there, but with your location, that seems a natural idea.

    I recently wrote a one-act play to try to bring credit union history to life for a staff training session at a CU in CT. We had a wonderful time re-enacting how things might have happened 100 years ago. Interestingly, Ed Filene did not figure into the play. I am curious about many of the details about how the connections were made between Alphonse Desjardin coming to help St. Mary's Bank (CU) get started in Manchester, NH to then meeting with Ed Filene and Pierre Jay in Boston, which led to the CU legislation in Massachusetts.

    I see that you have done extensive research on Roy Bergengren, and I would enjoy learning more about him as well. There is a fabulous life-size cutout of Filene and Bergengren at America's CU museum, and I have a few photos of that.

    Please feel free to contribute your knowledge to the wikipedia articles on CU History, Ed Filene, Pierre Jay, and Roy Bergengren. I've worked on a few of those articles myself by adding what little I know on these subjects:

    CU History on Wikipedia

    From time to time I write about CU history on my blog here: http://blog.everythingcu.com

    Would enjoy talking further with you about this stuff at some point.

    Take care,
    Morriss Partee
    EverythingCU.com

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