Wells Fargo treasures sparkle in new museum

Most executives at Wells Fargo were interested in looking at the books during the Wachovia acquisition.

Beverly Smith just wanted to peek into the cellars.

"When banks close, you find the cool stuff in the basement," says Smith, who preserves Wells Fargo's rich history as vice president of historical services.

Old calculating machines, iron-heavy relics of the pre-computer age, were some of the treasures she found in Wachovia's Winston-Salem archives after the 2008 takeover. They go on display today in the new Wells Fargo Museum uptown as part of the bank's community celebration that includes a street festival and free admission to uptown museums.

Wells Fargo's museum is one of 10 the bank operates nationally and its first on the East Coast to tell the story of its heritage. Another opens next month in Philadelphia.

Founded in 1852 to provide transportation and banking services in the gold fields of California, Wells Fargo is known for its red and gold stagecoaches. Standing in the window facing South Tryon Street is a model from the 1850s found in a collector's barn in Colorado and restored in 2009.

Markings from the undercarriage - a No. 44 carved into the body, sort of a 19th-century VIN number - show it was built by Lewis Downing & Co. in Concord, N.H.

Another display looks at more modern implications of transportation and banking - the drive-up window, which became popular in the 1950s. Visitors can sit in the shiny red interior of an old Chevrolet Bel Air - the dashboard is either a '55 or '59 (Smith isn't sure yet) - and conduct mock transactions. A pneumatic tube with a sparkling light can be launched across the room.

Currency and coins are exhibited, including gold pieces struck at the Bechtler and Charlotte federal mints, built to serve miners after gold was discovered in Cabarrus County in 1799. Gold flakes trapped in quartz - the two minerals are frequent traveling companions - are also shown, brought from the Wells Fargo historic archives in San Francisco.

An old treasure box is on exhibit, one that carried mail and other valuables. It weighs 24 pounds empty and would rest at the feet of the "shotgun messenger" who sat beside the driver. It just goes to demonstrate how history lives on: When you call "Shotgun!" to claim the front passenger seat, that's what you're referring to.

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