Remembering Where We Came From
Happy Chamber of Commerce Week! What in the world is that you ask?
National Chamber of Commerce week is a week each year, usually the third week in October, where Chambers are encouraged to take the time to tell their story, and communities are encouraged to take the time to recognize a Chamber’s contribution to their community.
I love talking about this subject. In fact, it’s just about all I know. Settle in – but I’ll try to keep this brief.
This week is Chamber Week in the State of Texas, and the Abilene Chamber is excited to celebrate this time with our members. As you probably know, Chambers of Commerce have been around for thousands of years, dating back to locals establishing trade routes in Mesopotamia.
Our own Chamber isn’t nearly as old, but its role has been well-documented over the 111 years we’ve been in service to local business. Longer if you consider the earliest days.
If you missed the presentation by Abilene Historian Jay Moore at the Chamber’s annual Membership Meeting and Awards Celebration last month, you missed a doozy. Despite all the awards and accolades bestowed that special evening (congratulations again to all our nominees and honorees!), folks are still talking about Jay’s presentation.
In it, Jay documented the work of your Chamber and its affiliates.
What stood out to me was that the Chamber remains committed today to the same ideals and values that served Abilene in our early years. It all started in the 1880’s when 22 local business owners met at the courthouse, which each contributing $25 to help build our city. Called the Progressive Committee, the organization helped pave the way for today’s Chamber of Commerce.
Among other accomplishments, as Moore pointed out, was Abilene’s designation as the “Beet Capital of the World” (yes, you read that right) and went on to plant trees, provide a water well, attract more railroads, entice others to live here, and to gain a federal court, build a park, and even start a college (welcome, HSU!).
That same group encouraged the building of a high school and made sure it happened.
There was much work to do and everyone was welcome to contribute. The Board of Trade was born in 1890 to supplement the work of the Progressive Committee. This early precursor to the Chamber focused on telling Abilene’s story, and in the process identified what Abilene wanted and what we needed. As a result, passenger rail service was established, parks were built and Abilene welcomed its second college, known today as Abilene Christian University. Years later, the Chamber would support the establishment of McMurry College, now McMurry University, thanks to the vision of Dr. James Hunt.
Moore pointed out that “success came in the early 1900’s when we landed a cracker factory.” We still have a cracker factory, and now we have a cheese factory to round out the offering.
Our modern-day Chamber began to take shape in 1907 with the formation of the 25,000 Club, a booster group that set out to increase the population of our city from 3,400 to 25,000 by the 1910 Census, only to miss the target by a mere 16,000 residents.
In 1911, the 25,000 Club became the Abilene Chamber of Commerce. And, unquestionably, the focus on progress, the economy and creating a better community for all of us has remained central.
Moore noted that in the 1920’s, our Chamber led an effort to imagine what was possible. Among notable accomplishments were the drilling of Abilene’s first three oil wells, getting the Bankhead Highway located through Abilene, and starting the West Texas Fair.
Your Chamber also helped establish the community’s first Country Club and backed the idea of creating a Zoo. We played a role in the Great Depression, Moore shared, and worked hard to help advance New Deal efforts to create jobs.
Sometimes overlooked was your Chamber’s role in the downtown federal building and underpasses. We helped to get our airport upgraded. We pushed to establish a dam across Elm Creek, creating Lake Fort Phantom.
And, as Jay Moore shared, the Chamber helped Abilene out of the Great Depression by raising $125,000 to lease land and leveraged the water at Fort Phantom to establish an army base. Camp Barkeley “put money in just about every pocket in town,” according to Moore. But only five years later, Barkeley went away, and your Chamber landed Mrs. Baird Bakery in 1948.
The Chamber also recruited Timex and began to realize that Abilene had the important attributes to land an Air Force Base. And Dyess has changed us, for the better, ever since the Chamber landed the finest base in the nation.
In 1962, the Chamber board incorporated our Industrial Foundation (AIF) as a private sector partner. Arch Batjer was named its first president. They raised $250,000 to buy land and build facilities to lure prospective employers to town, Moore shared. We celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Industrial Foundation at last month’s annual meeting.
Superior Bag and Box brought 50 jobs, Aileen’s produced clothing and jobs. Bandag is a product of the AIF, and Abilene won favor from Martin Sprocket and Gear to open a plant. FA Reynolds made musical instruments, US Brass and Texas Instruments and Victor Equipment and so many others chose Abilene.
And thankfully they did. The impressions of these employers helped to make our great city what it is today – forward thinking, competitive and serious about taking care of our own.
And, as Moore pointed out, we can’t recognize our history without an intentional nod to Judy Matthews, “who saw her beloved downtown decaying and dying and dreamed of breathing life and color and movement and energy back into it,” he said.
The list of accomplishments goes on and on, but one thing is for certain – if not the Chamber, then who?
I want to wrap up this read with a quote from Jay Moore: “It was up to those early day folks to create a community – and it is still up to us – to take that village and turn it into a town, to imagine, to promote, and to move individual ideas into community endeavors, to advance ourselves into an always forward-moving city.”
And that is what Chamber of Commerce Week is all about – remembering where we’ve come from, and renewing our pledge to continue to dream, to make great things happen, and to do so in a spirit of partnership and cooperation that is the envy of any community.
Help us celebrate. Encourage others to support our growing membership and be a part of our next chapter.
We’re grateful for each of you and for what you contribute each day for a better community for all of us.