By Callie Hietala
After half a century encased behind a marble slab at 1 Ellsworth Street in uptown Martinsville, the contents of Piedmont Trust Bank’s time capsule were revealed at an event that drew a crowd of several dozen people on Friday, April 1.
Beyond finally seeing what was inside, the event marked a reunion of sorts for employees of Piedmont Trust Bank, who made up well over half the crowd and were visibly happy to come together not only to participate in the occasion but, perhaps more importantly, to share memories of their time at the bank
Since the city announced it would open the time capsule, there had been much speculation in the weeks, days, and even hours leading up to the opening about what might lie inside, particularly as the marble block instructed the contents be unearthed on April Fool’s Day. Would there be money? Photographs? A joke item or two?
“I’m not sure what kind of sense of humor the folks who worked at the bank in 1972 may have had,” quipped Towarnicki, “so we have no idea what’s behind there. It could be some old Christmas bonuses that never got handed out to employees.”
City Council member Danny Turner, who said he was a sophomore at Martinsville High School when the capsule was placed, joked that, if it was an April Fool’s prank, “I hope the person that thought of it is here to enjoy it.”
As many did during the event, Towarnicki took a few moments to reflect on the past.
“This is the year 2022 and if you think, 50 years from now, what’s the world going to look like? What’s Martinsville going to look like? I can’t imagine that. So, you can imagine in 1972 as the bank folks were assembling whatever’s in this bag that we’ll open up shortly, you have to imagine that they were thinking the same thing in 1972, with the idea that this was going to be opened today. What would Martinsville look like in 2022? What would the world look like in 2022?”
Looking ahead now, Towarnicki said, is just as difficult.
“If you consider how much things have changed in the last 5 years, the last 10 years,” it is hard to imagine what 2072 might look like.
Jim Frith, of Frith Construction, shared his memories of the bank. He said his father, who was on the Piedmont Trust board as the Ellsworth Street location was being built, convinced staff to build two more floors to the initial plan to allow for growth.
“They changed their mind, added two more floors, and the rest was history,” he said. “At the time, it was the tallest building in Martinsville. It’s still the tallest building downtown.”
Two people who helped build the bank were part of the crowd last Friday. Riley Williams, now 82, and Wade Smith both helped put the steel in place for the building.
Williams recalled that then-Sen. Harry Byrd attended the groundbreaking ceremony, held, as Frith described, on the day the placing of the steel was completed.
Frith said his brother, Jay, who helped install the steel during construction, helped place nuts and bolts on the final beam to hold it in place.
That beam, Williams said, was signed by all the construction crew.
When it was time to open the capsule, Lynette Newman, who, Frith said, “kept up with this time” to make sure the capsule was opened on the right date, joined A.J. Hice and his 8-month-old son, Groves, to ceremonially oversee the opening of the capsule.
Hice’s great-grandfather, Irving Groves, founded the bank, and his grandfather, Irving Groves, Jr. eventually took over as president. Hice’s son is named in their honor.
Workers removed the marble slab from the side of the building to reveal a large, brown, zippered canvas bag covered in red brick dust.
As the bag was brought over to the table that was set up in the parking lot of the building, Frith broke the anticipatory quiet with an unexpected question.
“For years,” he said, “word has been there’s another compartment behind this compartment. I just checked it out and it looks like it’s so. Shall we have a private meeting about that?” he asked Towarnicki.
“Are you serious?” Towarnicki responded.
“The lore I’ve heard through my family … you ever hear the name Jimmy Hoffa?” Frith asked with a smile, drawing laughs from the gathered crowd. It was, after all, April Fool’s Day.
About 40 sets of eyes turned intently to the table where Towarnicki stood with the bag, and everyone pressed in to try to get a look.
The bag’s zipper held fast, and Towarnicki pulled out a pocket knife to cut open the bag, from which he pulled a large, cylindrical container, made of metal the color of brass or new copper. It was covered in signatures, presumably those of bank employees.
Carefully, Towarnicki cut around the tape holding the cylinder’s lid closed and opened it to reveal the contents that had rested inside for half a century.
The first item removed was a copy of the Friday, April 14, 1972 Martinsville Bulletin.
“There’s some Vietnam news,” Towarnicki said, quickly scanning the headlines. “Funds for the bypass tentatively okayed,” he read.
Next came a copy of the bank’s 1971 annual report, followed by a May 1971 phone book, then a poster for a June 23, 1972 lawn party at Chatmoss Country Club celebrating the 50th anniversary gala of the bank.
“They had to move it inside because of the weather,” someone said from the crowd.
The poster opened further to reveal the notes and lyrics of a bank song, “We’re Just Wild About Piedmont.”
Though there were murmurs of recognition from those watching, no one accepted Towarnicki’s invitation to perform the song.
Next out of the capsule was a 1972 map of Martinsville and Henry County, a list of bank employees in April 1972, a statement of the financial condition of the bank at close of business Sept. 15, 1922 (100 years before), and a list of city and county officials which listed John Hooker as the current Circuit Court judge, Roscoe Reynolds as Commonwealth’s Attorney, Tom Nolan as city manager, and Fred Renick as Martinsville’s mayor, among others.
“There’s the money we were looking for,” Towarnicki said, pulling a single 1972 penny from the capsule and holding it up for all to see.
The final item was a small yellow box of Piedmont Trust Bank chewing gum.
At the event’s end, former bank employees milled about, catching up with former coworkers, sharing memories, and lining up for closer looks at the items revealed that day, as well as photographs and other memorabilia brought in for the occasion.
Mary Lee Jessie, who retired from Piedmont Trust Bank in 1992 after 38 years of service, said she was there the day the building first opened, when the capsule was placed.
“All of us employees gave tours to customers who would come in. We toured the entire building,” she recalled.
Hice said the day’s events had been surreal.
“I remember as a kid walking by, looking at the capsule and thinking, ‘I’m going to be over 30 when that thing is unveiled. I don’t even know what my life is going to be like then … Looking at it in the 90s and then getting to bring my wife and my son to (the opening) is the greatest thing that I could ask for.”
Particularly as the building’s future is currently uncertain, he said, the event was “a good piece of closure before everything switches hands.”
Mayor Kathy Lawson said the day was a “great opportunity to share some history with our community, to bring together individuals who worked here for many, many decades. The tenure of most — 20, 30, 40 years — in today’s world, just doesn’t happen. Their dedication to the bank and the bank’s dedication to them is very apparent.”
That dedication was evident throughout the event, in the fondness with which those gathered spoke of their time at Piedmont Trust, the words and recollections shared by Frith, and the presence of the descendants of the bank’s founders at the ceremony.
“It’s a testament that people who live here love this place,” Lawson said.