By: Philip Fritsche, SR.
BD Chamber of Commerce – Beaver Dam, WI
Where does one begin when trying to summarize a century of business programs, services and advocacy? The easiest way is to begin at the beginning, summer 1913. Tunes like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” were being played on Victor Victrolas. Baseball games, boating on Beaver Dam Lake, church services and commerce were occupying the attention of locals, while war was brewing in Europe. The railroad was in its heyday, with the downtown depot bringing thousands of visitors to the community for the Dodge County Fair at the end of each summer season.
For local merchants, a top priority was certainly commercial prosperity. We do not have an exact record of where or who initially began meeting to discuss the inadequate roads leading into and through downtown Beaver Dam, but it was probably downtown shopkeepers, bankers and industrialists determined that business would benefit from investing private funds into road repair. These forward-thinking individuals recognized that automobiles were going to be a game changer in commerce, as well as in individual transportation, despite the fact that very few people owned cars in Beaver Dam at the time. Thus began the first coordinated business advocacy as businesses began lobbying government for a collaborative partnership to fund the construction of better roads. The only impediment was a way to coordinate the efforts of the many and varied businesses who were brought together initially with this common goal.
After some planning and the announcement of an inaugural meeting, local business owners came together on Wednesday July 2, 1913, and created the Beaver Dam Merchants and Manufacturers Association (BDM&MA) with the initial objective of fixing downtown roads. A little over a month later on Thursday August 14, 1913, the BDM&MA completed its campaign for “better roads” by announcing it had raised $1,140.00 from the business community to contribute to the effort (equal to about $26,200.00 today).
From that first effort, the organization that eventually became the Beaver Dam Chamber of Commerce grew. During times of prosperity, the Chamber thrived on the success of its members. The Great War came within a few years of the founding of the organization and some local businesses did very well. The prosperity of the Roaring Twenties spread to every corner of our nation and Beaver Dam roared along as well, despite things like Prohibition crippling local breweries. In 1922 the BDM&MA legally incorporated with the State of Wisconsin and changed its name to the Beaver Dam Chamber of Commerce.
Even during bad economic times, the Chamber maintained an office and part-time staff to provide what services it could for its struggling members. There was equal misery during the Great Depression, but the many years of depression lead to the next economic boom as the nation entered another World War. The industrial base of the community thrived during World War II and beyond.
The sustained commercial expansion of the 1950s provided a very healthy local economy. Area manufacturers did well. Prosperous employees supported retail and service businesses. The community continued to grow. The business community and the membership of the Chamber also continued to grow. Many of our seasoned citizens today still remark on how downtown Beaver Dam on a Friday night in the 1950s and 1960s was a mecca for shopping and recreation. Every parking place for blocks was parked full. Families roamed the streets, going to shows, having a bite to eat – fresh popcorn or an ice cream, shopping in clothing stores, jewelry shops, furniture stores and five & dimes. It was a weekly tradition to go downtown with your friends and neighbors and visit while making the shopping “rounds,” personal interaction revolving around commerce. All of this was wonderful for local businesses, most of them “mom & pop,” locally owned and family run.
The 1970s were challenging with rising oil prices, recession, inflation, and increasing global competition that hit industry hard in America’s Midwest. The economic pain was felt locally, and the Chamber could not do much to alleviate national and international problems. There was a retail and service business rebound in the 1980s with expansion of national chain stores across the country. This was a mixed blessing for places like Beaver Dam, where a “big city” mall created rapid economic development and tax base on the city’s north side, but ended up gutting the historic downtown. The last 20 years of the Twentieth Century also saw the end of some once major employers like Monarch Range and the Green Giant canning factory.
Myrtle Clifton managed the Chamber from 1983 to 2003, and new events were established that not only provided opportunities for local businesses to promote, but also provided recreational activities for the citizens of the community. Ms. Clifton brought a much more active form of Ambassador Committee to Beaver Dam and created a mentoring program for younger business professionals through the Ambassadors and other chamber committees. She organized networking events that provided opportunities for members to do business with one another. Clifton secured a working agreement with the City of Beaver in the mid 1980s for the old downtown train depot to be renovated and leased for the Chamber of Commerce offices and a visitor center for the community, a big improvement for both the Chamber and the public. Good working relationships were established between education and the business community thanks to the leadership of Ms. Clifton, and the organization made its first foray into leadership training. Providing 20 years of service to the business community, her level of professional management put Beaver Dam on par with communities that were much larger.
The most recent decade has been the most active of the Chamber’s first 100 years, at least in terms of the number of annual activities, public participation and membership growth with a 24% increase in membership since 2003 and about double the number of events hosted annually.
The day-to-day management of the organization includes collaborating with government, education and other non-profits in the area. The last 12 months, it has also included the historic restoration/renovation of the old downtown train depot that will be completed in time for the organization’s 100th Anniversary on July 2, 2013. The 1901 building was officially purchased from the City of Beaver Dam in summer 2011. The building restoration/renovation has proven to be a fiscally prudent project relying heavily on volunteers, in-kind contributions and the generosity of the business community to accomplish a $300,000.00 project for about half the cost. The grand unveiling and rededication of the property will occur along with several other events.
On Monday July 1, 2013, the Chamber will invite the membership for a free evening cookout on the new patio being constructed behind the building.
On Tuesday July 2, 2013, the Chamber will host a Centennial Gala Dinner at Old Hickory Golf Club, a semi-formal event geared toward the membership and open to the public. The organization is in the process of lining up a special keynote speaker for this event.
On Wednesday July 3, 2013, the Chamber invites the entire community to Tahoe Park for food and drink, live entertainment, a special Must-Skis show and a wonderful fireworks display over Beaver Dam Lake as we celebrate 100 years of the Beaver Dam Chamber of Commerce’s service to area businesses and the community.