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Monuments and Milestones
Jabez Bunting (J.B.) Watkins graduated from the Law Department of the University of Michigan in 1869. His early career in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin eventually led him to start his own land mortgage company in Champaign, Illinois. Watkins saw a great business opportunity and opened a land mortgage company in Lawrence in 1873. This new endeavor was located on the southeast corner of 8th and Massachusetts Street. The growth and success of his business allowed him to open, or invest in, other businesses while in Lawrence, including a railroad, a promotional newspaper, and canning and sugaring companies. By the late 1870s, Watkins had branches of his mortgage company in New York, London, and Dallas.
Watkins opened the Watkins National Bank and Land Mortgage Building in Lawrence in 1888, having spared no expense in its construction. The lobby showcases mosaic floors made with eight different varieties of marble and features a 25 ft long brass chandelier. The bright red bricks give the exterior a striking appearance. The second floor housed the Watkins National Bank. The third floor housed the Watkins Land Mortgage Company offices. The building had living quarters for the janitor in the basement and on the top floor for Watkins himself.
Watkins hired 15 year old Elizabeth Josephine Miller as an office clerk around 1876. She worked for Watkins for 25 years, climbing the ladder to the position of assistant secretary, eventually becoming his wife. Watkins lived in the bank until he married Elizabeth in 1909 when they moved into a home he had built near Fraser Hall on the University of Kansas campus, now the University Chancellor's residence.
Elfriede Fisher Rowe, who worked in the Watkins Bank Building in the early 1900s, describes her experience there in her book "Wonderful Old Lawrence".
"The first morning I arrived for work, I thought I had stepped into Mr. Scrooge's office. Tall desks like Bob Cratchet's were lined along the north side. I could choose the desk I preferred, so I chose the furthest one back. I could look out in the street from there and anyone walking along the sidewalk that I knew, I could beckon to them to come on up and see me."
Due to the depression in the 1890s, the Watkins National Bank and Land Mortgage Company began to experience difficulties. Watkins was determined to pay all his investors in full; however, he passed away in 1921 before this promise could be fulfilled. His widow fulfilled the promise by giving the investors their original capital, but was unable to do so until several years after the bank closed in the stock market crash of 1929.
After the bank closed, Mrs. Watkins donated the building to the City of Lawrence. It served as City Hall until 1970. The building's last transformation happened when the Douglas County Historical Society established the Watkins Community Museum of History in April 1975. Housed in this architectural treasure, the museum continues to share the history of Lawrence and Douglas County.