THE ELBERT FILES: Looking back to move forward
Friday, January 04, 2013 7:00 AM
• Business Record columnist
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© 2013 Business Record
This week, the Business Record looks forward into 2013.
In this week’s column, however, I’ll be looking back to see how business, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, helped the Des Moines metro area become the center of cultural, social and business activity that it is today.
One-hundred-twenty-five years ago this month, on Jan. 25, 1888, the Commercial Exchange of Des Moines, later rebranded as the Chamber of Commerce, was created.
To mark that event the Chamber’s parent organization, The Greater Des Moines Partnership, plans a series of observations and celebrations this year to help people reconnect with the past. Indeed, having a better understanding of that winter day 125 years ago and what has transpired since then will better position us to meet the challenges of the future.
As the year progresses, we invite you to join us as we make periodic reports, like this one, that will help connect the dots.
Early histories show Des Moines’ Commercial Exchange was founded as an amalgamation of organizations that sprang up following the city’s incorporation in 1851 by its then roughly 500 residents.
Founders of the Exchange included the local Board of Trade (organized in 1871), a Citizens Association (created in 1872), a Manufacturer’s Association (also founded in 1872), and The Des Moines Association of Jobbers and Manufacturers (established in 1885).
The original goals of the Exchange were markedly similar to those pursued by the Partnership today. According to a 50-year history written in 1938, they included: promoting Des Moines as a convention site, improving transportation, attracting new businesses, and beautifying the riverfront.
To get a sense of the times, it helps to know that the Commercial Exchange was organized only four years after state government had moved from Iowa City into the new Capitol building in Des Moines.
Des Moines at the time was a fast-growing city of about 40,000. That’s roughly the population of Ankeny today. By early in the 20th century Des Moines had grown to more than 100,000. Today the city’s population is just over 200,000 with about 650,000 people living in the seven-county Des Moines Metro Area.
The late 1880s were a time of unbounded optimism and great expectations, not unlike today. Much of the Exchange’s early activity centered on trips to New York and other commercial centers to promote Des Moines as a manufacturing and distribution center.
During the first half of the 20th century, Des Moines became a shampoo and cosmetics center as business promoters F.W. Fitch (“The Shampoo King”) and cosmetics maker Carl Weeks, who built Des Moines’ signature Salisbury Home, hit their stride.
The Exchange was instrumental in helping convince the federal government to establish the Fort Des Moines Army Post in 1903 and in persuading city voters to switch to a then-new commission form of government in 1908.
In 1900, the Exchange began promoting Des Moines as a tourist attraction. In 1908, it organized a Convention Bureau to promote the newly erected riverside Coliseum, a sports and convention venue that was destroyed by fire in 1949 and replaced by Veterans Memorial Auditorium in 1955.
The Exchange was renamed the Commercial Club in 1905. In 1914, the name changed again to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, with the addition of the Greater Des Moines Partnership in 1999.
Along the way, Des Moines business leaders helped bring air travel to Iowa in 1928, minor league baseball in 1947 and pari-mutuel horse racing in 1989.
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