The Elbert Files: Capone, Lindy and other stories
Friday, November 08, 2013 7:00 AM
Al Capone and Charles Lindbergh are essential characters in Chris Mead’s forthcoming history of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In fact, they are a large part of the reason he wrote “The Magicians of Main Street: America and Its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945.”
The book is scheduled for release next spring, and Mead, a chamber executive in Virginia, was the featured speaker at the Nov. 7 launch of “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.”
“Giants” was commissioned by the Greater Des Moines Partnership to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce this year. I helped write it, but my eight-month effort was nothing compared with the more than six years Mead spent on his book.
His project began after Mead read a Capone biography that said the Chicago Association of Commerce had played a major role in getting rid of the Prohibition-era gangster. According to the book, the business association recruited and coordinated political support from Presidents Coolidge, Hoover and others to end Capone’s mob career.
“Six months later,” Mead said, “I’m reading a biography about Charles Lindbergh, and it talks about his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis,” and explains the name came from Lindbergh’s financial backers, who included St. Louis banker Harold Bixby, president of the local chamber of commerce.
Mead reported that as Bixby handed Lindbergh a $15,000 check to pay for the aircraft, the banker asked: “What would you think of naming it The Spirit of St. Louis?”
Lindbergh agreed, not knowing, or caring, that the “The Spirit of St. Louis” was the name of a promotional film created by the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce in the early 1920s.
In the cases of both Capone and Lindbergh, Mead said, “nobody knew about the chambers’ involvements except the people in the cities where the events took place.”
Mead spent much of his own career writing about economic development before he joined a chamber offshoot, the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, where he is now senior vice president.
When he made the move, Mead said: “I thought, ‘Chambers, oh how boring.’ Then, I discovered that they weren’t so boring. They were actually about who we are as a country and a people.”
After learning about chamber roles in the Capone and Lindbergh stories, Mead tried for a while to find someone to write a chamber history, before giving up and deciding to do it himself.
His book notes that historical evidence of business associations exists as far back as 2000 B.C. in what is now Syria.
The earliest group to use the name “chamber of commerce,” according to Mead, was in France. The Marseilles Chambre de Commerce “was involved in everything from harbor maintenance to sending trade missions abroad to chasing down pirates,” he wrote.
Similar associations with varying names began showing up in the New World during the mid-1700s.
A major split occurred over the question of independence. At the New York chamber, he wrote, “more of its members were loyalists than revolutionaries.”
Later in 1795, after independence had been won, chambers in New York and Boston were instrumental in winning support for the unpopular Jay Treaty. Historians credit the treaty with keeping the newly formed United States out of a second war with Britain, which most agree would have been disastrous.
Chamber growth ebbed and flowed with the economy up until about 1887, when Mead says a “wave of growth began,” spurred by “the desire to join together to solve civic and social problems, increasing prosperity and the competitive struggle for markets and population.”
One of the beneficiaries of that growth was Des Moines, where the forerunner of today’s chamber, the Des Moines Commercial Exchange, was founded in 1888.
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