Jim McKee: Chamber of Commerce nearly dates back to Lincoln's origins
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Jim McKee: Chamber of Commerce nearly dates back to Lincoln's origins

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Commercial Club

This photo looks north from the intersection of 11th and P streets at the old house on the northeast corner of the intersection, which is about to be razed for the new “Commercial Club” building to be built.

Today’s Chamber of Commerce has existed in Lincoln since the city was 3 years old. Although its name and address have changed a number of times through the years, it still exists as the city’s primary business booster, encouraging new businesses while supporting those already here and promoting all sorts of city conventions and events.

On the evening of July 28, 1870, a Wednesday and a week after the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad arrived in Lincoln, a handful of Lincoln businessmen met in a tiny frame schoolhouse, formerly the Methodist church, on the southwest corner of 10th and Q streets. That evening they chose Charles Henry Gere, head of the State Journal Co., located on the southwest corner of the school’s block, to be the president of the group to be called the Lincoln Board of Trade.

The same group, with a few more gentlemen, met three days later to formally organize to “judiciously advertise” and encourage Lancaster County to issue bonds in support of additional railroads in order to create competition which would in turn lower freight rates. Dues were set at $2.50 per quarter. They then specifically endorsed $150,000 of county bonds be used to encourage the Midland Pacific Railroad, which originated in Nebraska City, on the condition that the railroad reach Lincoln by the following year. Midland Pacific, later part of the Burlington, built near what is now Nebraska 2 and met the conditions as set.

Even though the second railroad was created, the Lincoln Board of Trade apparently was deemed ineffective. A new larger group of businessmen met in a University of Nebraska building in 1874 to reorganize as the Board of Trade at Lincoln, with a charter specifically set to expire Jan. 1, 1900. An initial capitalization of $1,000 was divided into $20 shares to finance the group.

In 1878, a number of the Board of Trade members formed a parallel organization known as the Union Club, which was intended to be more of a social club.

In the 1880s, the organization again reorganized with 30 men, which was instrumental in bringing 10 new industries to Lincoln, helped organize West Lincoln and several meat packing firms there and worked to bring the Nebraska State Fair permanently to Lincoln. It boosted its membership to more than 200 and hired its first employee.

The Union Club and the Lincoln Commercial Club merged as the Union Commercial Club, while the Board of Trade quietly disappeared. The new group met at the Lincoln Hotel at Ninth and P, leased John R. Clark’s house for offices and meetings, moved in 1897 to the Walsh Hall at 12th and N, and then to the Y.M.C.A./Freie Press Building on the southwest corner of 13th and N.

Yet another reorganization in 1903 brought back the name as the Lincoln Commercial Club which de-emphasized social events.

During these reorganizations, the Lincoln Auditorium opened on South 13th Street with the club’s encouragement. Pledges were then solicited to build a home/office building for the club adjacent to the auditorium. That project did not get traction and the club instead moved to the second floor of the Fraternity Building on the southeast corner of 13th and N streets.

Meantime, several building sites were considered and a land lease was even signed, but ultimately the house built by physician J.D. Leslie in the late 1870s on the northeast corner of 11th and P streets, which was then occupied by a smoke house restaurant, was purchased and razed.

Ground was broken in 1912 and the following year the new Burlinghof & Davis-designed building was completed. The neo-classical, four-story, brick and terra cotta-sheathed steel skeleton's central interior feature was the two-story, 25-foot ceilinged ballroom with surrounding balconies on the top two floors.

Also in 1913, the Commercial Club bought the adjacent hotel annex for $25,000. The new building spurred membership, which reached 1,696 by 1916. The Commercial Club boasted it had brought 85 conventions to the capital city.

In 1920, under Charles Towle’s presidency, the Lincoln Commercial Club became the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce and created a new division called the Sower’s Club to promote Lincoln as a “trade center.” The Junior Chamber of Commerce for businessmen under the age of 35 was created in 1926.

In 1948, consideration was given to selling the building, but a $64,000 renovation was done instead partially funded by selling the north annex building to Walton Ferris for $16,500. By 1967, the 11th and P building had been sold and the Chamber moved to the Lincoln Building at 1221 N St. and now has its offices at 1135 M St.

Today, both the old Chamber of Commerce building at 11th and P and the many-times remodeled annex are part of a three-owner, $12 million project to build the Kindler boutique hotel in the annex which will be connected to the extant “Commercial Club Building.”

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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