MONMOUTH, Ill. — At dawn on Aug. 26, 1912, the Rice & Dore shows started unloading their special train of 20 circus cars to transform downtown Monmouth into a massive carnival, highlighted by a water circus in which 30 swimmers and two diving horses performed in a 250,000-gallon tank. A loop-the-loop daredevil, tent shows, a fat lady, midgets, boa constrictors, a Ferris wheel and other circus attractions made the Public Square a festive spot, as today’s photo attests.
Yet one large temporary structure on the southeast corner of the Square had nothing to do with the circus. An octagonal clock, 12 feet in diameter, had been erected two weeks earlier in an effort to assist in a whirlwind campaign to raise $30,000 for a Monmouth Commercial Club — the forerunner of a chamber of commerce.
The campaign clock concept had been born in 1905 when YMCA fundraisers used a giant clock to collect funds for the new Washington, D.C., YMCA building, in a 27-day campaign. The clock was divided into 300 sections, each representing a portion of the campaign goal. Each day, the little hand would be moved to indicate the day of the campaign and the little hand would be moved to indicate the total dollars raised. The campaign clock became a staple of every YMCA building campaign nationwide and because of its success was borrowed by many other organizations.
The Monmouth clock, which in the photo is seen from the rear, was lighted from behind to be illuminated at night. Like the YMCA clocks, it would prove highly successful in quickly raising the $35,000 necessary to establish a Commercial Club in Monmouth.
The idea for a Commercial Club had been brewing for several months when in July 1912, the Daily Atlas published the following editorial:
“The city or town that does not have its Commercial Club, Chamber of Commerce or Board of Trade or Industrial Association or some sort of an organization that serves to focus on business men their responsibility to that city or town is certainly not entirely awake, not a very big dot on the map and certainly has not a very soldierly step in the march of progress.”
The inspiration for the club may have originated with Arthur G. Brown, former editor of the Atlas, who had become secretary of the new chamber of commerce in Rockford, Ill.
On Aug. 12 — the day the clock went up — articles of incorporation were filed by W.C. Tubbs, John C. Allen, A.H. Frandsen, W.P. Graham, J.H. Jayne, Bruce Meek, Al Simon and A.E. Newman. The club was formally organized Sept. 9 at a dinner in the Colonial Hotel, with 50 businessmen present.
By late September, the organization was looking for headquarters and deciding between two buildings currently under construction — the Woods & Hallam building on West First Avenue and a business block being built by Dr. William S. Holliday on East First Avenue.
On Nov. 11, the Commercial Club signed five-year lease in the Holliday Building, renting the entire second floor and three rooms on ground floor, which would be sublet to the new Hawcock’s Restaurant.
The second floor contained six large rooms, two restrooms and an office for secretary. The stairs opened into a large corridor from which entrance could be made into the assembly hall, the dining room, the ladies’ parlor or the billiards room. The dining room and adjoining card-playing room were separated by folding doors, which could be opened up to create a banquet hall.
In December, the Commercial Club joined the newly organized national Chamber of Commerce, with Monmouth becoming the smallest city in the United States to hold a membership.
To celebrate the completion of its headquarters in early 1913, the club hosted a gala homecoming celebration for former Monmouth residents who had achieved fame in cities across the nation. Held Feb. 21 in the basement of Monmouth College’s Wallace Hall, the banquet attracted 19 distinguished guests and served 140 businessmen and spouses.
The club immediately became active, advocating for a new city hall to replace the decrepit municipal facility immediately to the west of its building (which also housed the fire station and its six horses), and to improve roads coming into the city. One of its first projects was to publish an attractive photograph book, highlighting Monmouth’s businesses and homes, to attract potential industries. Released in December 1913, the booklet devotes a full page to the Commercial Club’s quarters — including a photograph of a swimming pool, which never existed in the building and may have been from the old YMCA down the street.
The club remained neutral on issues of religion or politics. Annual dues were $18 — about $250 in today’s currency. Women were permitted in the club, but only if they were wives or daughters of the members. The rooms were open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight, but game playing was prohibited on Sundays. Liquor and gambling were prohibited.
In the coming years, chambers of commerce would become increasingly the norm for civic and industrial development, especially after the formation of the International Chamber of Commerce in 1920. In 1921, the Commercial Club voted to transform the organization into a chamber of commerce. A major turning point occurred in September of that year, when Hawcock’s decided to expand and the new chamber had to give up its club rooms. But that did not curb the enthusiasm of the members.
In March 1922, the Chamber instituted a 10-day educational campaign, followed by three mornings of intensive solicitation, to increase the membership base. The effort paid off, with 113 new members being added. On the March 28, 350 guests gathered at the Monmouth Armory for the first annual Chamber of Commerce dinner.
The newly energized club established an annual budget of $10,000, equal to well over $100,000 in today’s money. On April 10, a record 200 members attended the monthly meeting. That same month, the directors took quick action to get part of $30 million in improvement funding set aside by the Burlington Railroad. They were successful in obtaining funding for much needed parking improvements at the Monmouth depot.
That Christmas, the Chamber started what would become an annual tradition of promoting holiday shopping in downtown Monmouth, outfitting the streetlights with red and green bulbs
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.