Mrs. Mary E. Miller of this place is the only woman in the United States known to be the president of a bank. It is the Lafayette bank, located here, which she practically owns and manages. Other women are known to have charge of departments and occupy minor fiduciary positions in large banks, but none to own, officer and manage a bank of her own. Her son, George, is vice president, her son, James, is cashier, and his wife, Elizabeth, is assistant cashier, so that it is distinctly a “Miller bank.” It has now been in operation over two years.
From the Lafayette News,
December 13, 1902
One of town founder Mary Miller’s most important and unsung accomplishments was helping women achieve financial independence. During her stints as real estate agent and part owner of both the Farmers’ & Miners’ State Bank, which failed in 1898, and the Lafayette Bank, which she formed in 1900, she often lent money and signed the property deed over to the female of the household rather than the male. This was not a common occurrence in the era of American Victorianism, where women had limited legal rights and didn’t have the right to vote in Colorado until 1893. Boys went to school and girls stayed home to learn domestic skills. The man of the house earned the wages and engaged in politics. The woman stayed home, kept house and raised the children.
In 1888 and 1889, Mary Miller platted 89 acres of her farm into 353 Old Town lots and recognized an opportunity to empower her fellow sistren. From 1888 to 1904, 50 of the 190 purchased lots were sold to women, some for as little as $1. Boulder County property records show Old Town lots, 50 feet by 140 feet, sold to men at an average price of about $90. The purchase price for lots sold to women averaged about $48.
The Dec. 18, 1914, front page story in the Lafayette Leader about the failure of Mary Miller’s Lafayette Bank and Trust Company didn’t explain a whole lot about the circumstances behind the bank’s sudden closing, only that the bank had been consolidated with the Louisville Bank and Trust Company.
“The public is to be congratulated on the consolidation strength thus attained which will show the aggregated resources to be over $350,000,” said the story.
A month later, the story got worse. On Jan. 16, 1915, the newspaper reported that Louisville Bank and Trust Company was insolvent and had been turned over to the State Banking Department “pending the suit in regard to the account of the United Mine Workers which is now in litigation.”
That was that, at least according to the local press.
Using coal royalties and land sales proceeds, Mary Miller founded Lafayette Bank and Trust Company, also known as the Miller Bank, in 1900. It was the second bank she’d help form in the town, the first being the Farmers’ & Miners’ State Bank, which closed in 1894.
Under the direction of Mary Miller, the Lafayette Bank provided many “firsts” for the U.S. banking industry, including Mary Miller as the first woman president of a bank. She frequently extended mortgages to women to help them build credit worthiness, and most of the town’s coal miners were secure in their own homes — not paying rent or living in company housing — thanks to Mary Miller. During the frequent strikes, she allowed union miners to delay their mortgage payments.
Several takes on the 1914 bank failure have been told. James P. Miller, Mary Miller’s son and Vice-President of the bank in 1914, claimed that political pressure as a result of the bank’s support of the striking miners was causing a “great shock.”
In early 1916, the United Mine Workers of America were in a quandary as to where over $57,000 of their money had gone that was deposited at Lafayette, Louisville and Erie banks.
Frank Miller, Mary Miller’s grandson, said in 1978 that the bank failure was caused by a delinquent reimbursement of $5 per family per week strike subsidies, known as a selective strike fund, paid by the union to striking miners. The UMWA told the bank to accept miners’ drafts, which the bank did, but the $90,000 the bank was supposed to send for reimbursement never made it west from the United Mine Workers of America central office in Indianapolis.
In July 1916, a local news article stated that $80,000 deposited with the Lafayette bank, then in receivership, was released to depositors, including the UMWA — over the objection of bank officer James P. Miller. The UMWA said that the money was deposited at the bank with the understanding that it would be loaned to the American Fuel Company to pay wages of union miners trying to break the 1910-1914 coal miner’s strike.