Charlotte Elizabeth Battles (October 11, 1864 - December 17, 1952) was a woman ahead of her time. A college graduate, bank president, philanthropist, and community spirited, serving on the boards of several charitable and educational institutions. She held positions that no woman in the state had held before and was truly the first of her kind in Pennsylvania and the nation. The 1933 banking crisis of the Great Depression brought her prominence across the state and nation as a whole.
Born in 1864, Charlotte Elizabeth Battles was the only surviving child of Rush and Charlotte Battles. Her father was a successful farmer, landowner and president of the R.S. Battles Bank in Girard, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Girard Academy and the Lake Erie Seminary in Painesville, Ohio, in 1884, Charlotte Elizabeth Battles, or “Beth” to her family, travelled through Europe and later graduated from the Mount Vernon Seminary in Washington, D.C in May, 1886. In October of that year, Battles married Charles Barber, a Washington, D.C. lawyer. Local historian and author Sabina Freeman told what happened next in her book The Battles Story. In the spring of 1887, Battles returned to Girard to spend the summer with her parents but in October of that year, Rush Battles travelled to Washington, D.C. to have the marriage of his daughter annulled. The exact reason is unknown.
On March 27, 1904, upon the death of her farther, Charlotte Elizabeth Battles inherited the family estate and assumed the presidency of the R.S. Battles Bank. She was the first woman to ever hold that title and position. In 1914, she was the first woman appointed to the Board of Trustees of Edinboro State Normal School (Edinboro University of PA) and served in that capacity until she retired in 1925.
The 1930s brought the Great Depression to America and with it, the run on virtually every bank in the country. The R.S. Battles Bank remained solvent when many other institutions were forced to suspend payment on currency. In her 2020 articles in The Erie Reader and on the Jefferson Education Society website, Dr. Judith Lynch chronicled her confrontation with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When the Presidential Order was received in Girard, Battles declared it would be business as usual. In response to Roosevelt’s moratorium on banking, Charlotte Elizabeth Battles wrote a note that said “Mr. President, we’re minding our business, you do the same. Since I do not presume to tell you how to run the country, please do not presume to tell me how to run my bank.” Though this quote is attributed to Battles, Freeman states in her book no such note has been found. The R.S. Battles Bank became nationally known because it was able to keep its doors open when many could not.
Under the title “Girard Bank Says ‘Pooh’ to State and U.S. Bank Closing Edict,” the March 9, 1933, The Erie Daily Times reported, “The R.S. Battles bank is in a class by itself during these hectic days of money famine. The bank, it is believed, is the only one it the state and one of the few in the country which remained open during this past week.” C.F. Webster, a cashier, explained “Ours is a private bank and neither state or national government have any authority over it. There was no reason to close.”
On March 11, 1933, the New York Times printed “There has been no banking holiday as far as the Battles Bank in Girard is concerned. Business has been transacted as usual, officials explained. The institute is neither a state nor a federal bank. It is private, operated on the same basis as a private or independent store.” In her 1989 article in Pennsylvania Heritage, author Sabina S. Freeman wrote that the Battles Bank in Girard, Pennsylvania, was the only bank in the state not to close.
On July 23, 1946, the National Bank of Girard and the R.S. Battles Bank voluntarily merged to become The Girard Battles Bank. The Erie Daily Times reported: “After 87 years of service to the community, the R.S. Battles Bank has closed its doors. It was generally known that no person doing business with this bank every lost a penny and the bank has been a friend and supporter of all efforts which have contributed to a better more prosperous Girard.”
In 1920, Battles’ mother Charlotte died. Charlotte Elizabeth Battles felt loneliness at the loss and a friend from Erie, Georgianna “Nan” Reed, moved in to provide companionship. Reed was 18 years younger than Battles, but the two traveled around the region and the United States. Reed drove, and people in Girard remembered seeing the two often. The two ladies would live in the Battles “White House” on Walnut Street that Rush Battles had built in 1861, until Charlotte Elizabeth Battles died in 1953.
Charlotte Elizabeth Battles died on December 17, 1952. She had been a fixture in Girard since her father’s death. Georgianna Reed continued to live in the house on Walnut Street in Girard until her death in 1982. At her request, the Battles Trust is administered by the Erie County Historical Society, and both the “White House” and the “Yellow House” have been maintained and open to the public several times each year. Charlotte Elizabeth Battles was truly a woman ahead of her time.