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175 Years: A Look Back from 1900-1930 (Crossroads Preview)

For 175 years, the Chamber has been the Voice of Memphis Business. This year, as we look back on the Chamber's accomplishments, we're reminded of the impact the business community has when we collaborate together.  In this special preview of the upcoming Memphis Crossroads Magazine issue celebrating our 175th anniversary, writer Jon Sparks tells the story of the Chamber from 1900-1930. Back then, we helped bring higher education to Memphis, facilitated the first airport and celebrated hitting the 100,000 population mark.  This year, we're celebrating all that and more on April 12th as we look back over our 175 history. Join us for this historic celebration!

"This is an outrage," said the Memphis businessman to his companion at lunch. It was 1917, and the world was in turmoil. It was the year the U.S. declared war against Germany and the Russian Revolution broke out.
On the other hand, it was also when the first jazz record was released, the Raggedy Ann doll was invented and Jeannette Rankin had become the first woman member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But what set off the businessman, a proud member of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, was a quote he read in the newspaper. "Do you know what Vice President Thomas Marshall said in Washington? I'll read it to you: 'What this country needs is a really good five cent cigar.' "
The businessman's companion started to laugh and said, "But isn't it true?"
The businessman smiled back and said, "Well, maybe. But I contend we make plenty of them right here. I’m going to send Mr. Marshall a box of Memphis Bridge cigars. After all, we’re a top cigar making city, making dozens of brands of cigars. Do you know that we have 300 people in the local cigarmen's union?"
When Memphis entered the 20th century, it hit the 100,000 population mark, could report a strong character as a city and boast a growing reputation nationally. To celebrate the population mark, the Chamber hosted a grand city-wide festival with parade floats and parties.
The Cotton Exchange and the Merchant’s Exchange performed the services of the Chamber from 1865 to 1900. A pressing need of a central business organization led to the formation of the Business Men’s Club, which operated as a chamber. In 1917, the club officially changed its name to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.
In the 1900 statement of trade and commerce to the Merchant’s Exchange, it was reported that “The city of Memphis now has 55 miles of paved streets and 130 miles of sewers, the latter built since 1878, and 80 miles built within the past three years. Between 25,000 and 30,000 souls are sustained through the wage outlay of industrial enterprises of the city.”
Some of those souls were cigar makers, but many more were benefitting from a strong and growing commercial community, and the Business Men’s Club was working to make the city more competitive on various levels. They promoted Memphis as the “Convention City of the South” and led a ten year effort to build the Memphis Auditorium (now the site of The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts).
A key element was higher education. In 1908, the organization brought the West Tennessee Normal School to Memphis. It would open in 1912 and eventually become the University of Memphis.
In 1911, the club helped establish medical schools in the city by bringing the University of Tennessee’s College of Medicine to Memphis which had combined with the University of Nashville. These schools eventually grew into the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
While Memphis was already a rail and river stronghold, business leaders in 1913 knew the sky was the limit and backed development of the Park Field Airport to encourage the budding aviation sector.
The word bioscience was not on everyone’s tongue back in 1908, but when Abe Plough started Plough, Inc. and offered Plough’s Antiseptic Healing Oil, Memphis welcomed the bioscience industry.
Adding to the variety were some 32 hardwood mills operating in Memphis in 1910. The city called itself the "Hardwood Capital of the World" and furniture makers from around the county bought their rough-sawn and finished lumber here. It was a big enough industry to compare to the impact of cotton. By 1925, 40 lumber mills turned out 300 million feet of lumber and flooring.
Meanwhile, Clarence Saunders created the first supermarket at 79 Jefferson Avenue in 1916, changing forever how we buy our food. Two years before that on April 3rd, he had become a member of the Business Men’s Club.
With all the energy and innovation going on, carefully tracked and encouraged by the Chamber, the city was able to pitch in when World War I hit, and industrial output increased.
The 1920s saw further growth (the 1920 population had grown to 162,000), and in 1929 the Chamber hosted the Memphis Municipal Airport Dedication, a project they had worked on for years.  They made trips to Washington to get approval for Memphis to be an airmail route and spent $50,000 on the opening day which tens of thousands of people attended.
As the Great Depression began, the Chamber launched a “Program of Progress” campaign which helped Memphis survive the Great Depression.
Next up, the War years...

-- Jon Sparks

To read more, check out our Spring 2013 issue of Memphis Crossroads Magazine.

Join us on April 12th for our 175th anniversary celebration!

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