Don't Yawn: Chambers of Commerce
They Helped Send Lindbergh to the Skies and Capone to the
Are Really Quite a Kick
WSJ, August 16, 2012
By CONOR DOUGHERTY
Some people think of the chamber of commerce as the place
where businessmen bicker over things like how to add downtown
parking spaces. But Chris Mead, who has been writing a book
about the chambers for five years, wants to correct that
It was the chamber in Atlantic City, N.J., he says, that created the
Miss America pageant, while the St. Louis chamber helped pay for
Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. That's why his
famous plane was called the Spirit of St. Louis.
Then, too, the downfall of gangster Al Capone was engineered by
the Chicago Association of Commerce, which collected financial
information leading to his arrest. Elliot Tiber, president of the White
Lake-Bethel, N.Y., Chamber of Commerce, had the permit for the
Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the 1969 music festival.
Chambers of commerce had a role in Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic.
"They needed a permit, and I had a permit," says Mr. Tiber, who
recalls his chamber had four members including himself, and the
right to have a festival.
Mr. Mead assumes most people think chambers are boring.
"Except they're not," he says.
While the 58-year-old Mr. Mead is a senior vice president of the
American Chamber of Commerce Executives, a trade group for
officials of 1,200 local chambers, this is his personal pet project.
He arrives at ACCE's Alexandria, Va., building at 6 o'clock every
morning, he says, when the place is quiet and the parking lot
below his corner-office window is empty. He writes history until
7:30, before tackling more contemporary problems like signing up
new members and dreaming up things to sponsor.
The American workplace is full of people with side interests:
aspiring novelists who take lunch with a laptop and musicians who
come into the office red-eyed from last night's gig. Mr. Mead is like
that, a part-time dreamer.
Chambers of commerce also had a hand in the downfall of Al Capone.
"It is passion not quite to obsession," says Mick Fleming, the
ACCE's president and Mr. Mead's boss.
Why would anyone subject himself to this for a book that might
never get published? Walter Russell Mead, Mr. Mead's older
brother and a humanities professor at Bard College, in Annandaleon-
Hudson, N.Y., has one explanation. While many history books
are centered on powerful presidents and painful episodes like war
and slavery, little has been said about the moderately powerful
local folk who did much of the heavy lifting on main street.
"It turns out these totally anonymous people [at chambers] were
actually big drivers in how this country has grown," he said.
Merchant groups go back millennia and were formalized in Europe.
Colonists brought the idea to the Americas, but, unlike their
European forebears, most American chambers had no formal ties
to the government.
Mr. Mead has always had an obsessive streak, his wife, Laura,
says. He once tried to write a book about famous quotes
concerning Washington, D.C. He never finished. She supports his
chamber book but wants him to hurry up. Her advice? "Don't make
it so narrow that the only people who would want to read it are
Speaking recently in his office, which has a U.S. map with 198 red
dots on it marking every chamber he has visited, Mr. Mead rattled
off some of his quirkier findings.
In 1936, the president of the Michigan state chamber also became
head of the International Nudists Conference. The next year, a
Missouri chamber executive handcuffed himself to a woman's
radiator and threatened to stay there playing solitaire with his free
hand until she said yes or no to his marriage proposal. She said
"I love it when these characters emerge," he says.
Some of his stories have a dark side. Local groups were in some
cases active in upholding segregation, for instance, and promoted
urban renewal that destroyed minority neighborhoods.
One story in the book describes how, in the late 19th century, the
New Orleans chamber pressured the Louisiana legislature to
weaken quarantine laws that were costing time and money while
cargo sat at the harbor. A subsequent yellow fever outbreak killed
an estimated 20,000 people in the Mississippi Valley.
Mr. Mead says that the closer he gets to the present the less
objective he can be. "It's one thing to say something that happened
100 years ago, but it's hard to be a historian of people who are
paying membership dues," he says.
"If it's history, it's history. We've got bigger issues right now," says
Ben Johnson, president of the New Orleans Chamber, one of Mr.
Mead's members, who says he wasn't aware of the yellow fever
The inspiration for Mr. Mead's largely upbeat adventure came
several years ago when he was reading an Al Capone biography
that detailed the Chicago chamber's role in putting the gangster
away. He wondered why he had never heard the story despite
working for a national association of chambers, and after collecting
other bits of trivia he decided to create a list of five stories to be
distributed to members—"just to show our members that chambers
have done something interesting," he says.
He expanded the effort to include notable people who had served
on chamber boards (John D. Rockefeller was one), and to more
than 100 pages. Mr. Mead kept going and today has a tentative
title for what he has written: "The Magicians of Main Street." He
hopes to see it published. "If 500 of the right people read it, maybe
I'll think it's worth it," he says. "I could have a minor career in
speaking at chamber anniversary dinners."
Write to Conor Dougherty at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared August 17, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S.
edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Don't Yawn: Chambers
of Commerce Are Really Quite a Kick.