Opportunity Out of Fire

Opportunity Out of Fire

 

A master of opportunity, firm in his beliefs and tough to keep down, Harrison Gray (H.G.) Blake often resembled the namesake of the bank he founded, Phoenix Bank—one of the oldest predecessor institutions of what became FirstMerit Bank, now part of Huntington. Like the mythical phoenix, Blake and his bank continuously renewed through trial and fire.

A master of opportunity, firm in his beliefs and tough to keep down, Harrison Gray (H.G.) Blake often resembled the namesake of the bank he founded, Phoenix Bank—one of the oldest predecessor institutions of what became FirstMerit Bank, now part of Huntington. Like the mythical phoenix, Blake and his bank continuously renewed through trial and fire.
Born in New England and orphaned by age 2, Blake arrived in Ohio in 1830 in the company of family friends. He grew up working on a farm and clearing land, with minimal formal schooling. He was a quick learner though, and determined, even studying under a country doctor for a year. Ultimately, Blake decided neither farming nor medicine was in his future. And with no blood relatives to tie him down or fund his progress, he moved to Medina, Ohio, in 1836, penniless.

Blake began to work as a store clerk while studying law with a local judge. Within a few years the earnest young man found himself a pillar of the community, owning the store and operating a law office right on the town square.1

By 1846, Blake was serving in the Ohio legislature, where he introduced a bill to repeal the so-called Black Laws, “statutes that discriminated against free blacks living in the state.” The issue was heated, of course, but in Blake’s case the struggle involved a foiled kidnapping and enough personal risk that he began attending legislature meetings with two loaded pistols at his sides. Blake’s home was a well-known stop on the Underground Railroad throughout the prewar years.2

But Blake still had more to offer his community and made another new investment—this time in banking.

In the spring of 1857, he officially added Phoenix Bank to his Phoenix Block in Medina. Nine years earlier, the block had been completely destroyed in a fire. Quickly rebuilding, Blake named his new structures rising from the ashes “Phoenix.” Although the fire likely destroyed early records, the roots of the bank may trace back to 1845 in Blake’s original store.

Phoenix Bank soon became a hub of activity, largely based on the honor of its founder and cashier. According to Judge A.R. Webber, who studied in the Blake, Lewis & Woodward law office:

“[Blake] was in his day, beyond all question, the most popular and beloved man in the county. . . . He spent practically all his time in the bank where he was in constant demand by callers. Such was the confidence reposed in him that men and women came to him with about all the troubles to which flesh is heir. . . . He was a distinguished looking man, a gentleman of highest honor, a patriot to the core.”3

Two years after he founded Phoenix Bank, Blake was elected to the U.S. Congress, serving in the midst of the nation’s fiercest conflict and continuing to cause waves with his unwavering stance on abolition. One of his primary lawmaking achievements before serving in the Union Army as a colonel was establishing the U.S. Postal Service’s money-order system, a financial service that is still in use today.4

Blake returned to Medina after the war only to once more watch fire ravage the town. On April 14, 1870, almost 22 years to the day from the earlier fire, 45 stables, barns and buildings were destroyed, including the Phoenix Block. Fortunately, the townspeople’s savings were preserved; Blake had previously purchased a fireproof safe, which was dragged into the street during the blaze. A day later, Blake gathered a group on the courthouse steps and pushed for the town to rebuild.

The result was a brand new business district, vastly improved from its previous state, and again the Phoenix Bank served as an anchor.5

In 1873, the bank joined the federal banking system with a new charter as Phoenix National Bank. Blake died in April 1876, but like most of Huntington’s legacy founders, his bank passed into family hands. Son-in-law Robert M. McDowell took over as cashier and became president when the bank was rechartered and renamed the Old Phoenix National Bank in 1893. Blake’s grandson, H.G. “Blake” McDowell, served as president from 1916 to 1931.6

As the Medina area grew, so did Old Phoenix, following the path of many banking institutions into consolidation throughout the 20th century. In 1981, Old Phoenix merged with First National Bank of Ohio to form First Bancorporation of Ohio. By 1994, First Bancorp was one of Ohio’s 50 largest public corporations, reaching $4 billion in assets. The next year, the company changed its name to FirstMerit Corp.7

Today, as the institution joins Huntington, another chapter in the life of Blake’s bank is just beginning. This time it may not be rising from fire, but once again it is looking forward to new opportunities.

harrison-gray-blake

Phoenix Bank founder H.G. Blake
Courtesy of Medina County Historical Society

 

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Phoenix Block in Medina, Ohio, after H.G. Blake rebuilt it following the 1870 fire.
Courtesy of Medina County Historical Society

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Phoenix Block in Medina, Ohio, 2014
Courtesy of Jimmy Emerson, DVM