It was 1909 in Denton, Texas. The population had boomed from less than 400 people when the city was established as the Denton County seat back in 1857 to nearly 5,000. The railroad had arrived, two universities were influencing the city’s identity as a college town, and agriculture was the top industry according to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas (TSHA).

Historic photos of Denton circa 1909 in the TSHA archives show wagons laden with goods from area farms and ranches staged around the courthouse square, the town center for marketing and trading. Business names we recognize today like Morrison Milling, Harpool’s Seed, Evers Hardware, Ramey-King Insurance and the Denton Record-Chronicle were here then, too, their leaders full of enthusiasm for Denton’s future.

A family poses on a horse-drawn buggy in front of the Courthouse. Photo taken circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Denton County Office of History and Culture)

In 1909, these leaders saw Denton booming. They believed in actively shaping the city rather than merely letting growth happen to it. They wanted to plan a progressive city, prepare for future challenges before they became problems, and encourage good growth and clean industry that would support community prosperity long into the future. Dreams for everything Denton could someday become prompted them to establish the Denton Chamber of Commerce that same year.

The Chamber of Commerce was, and still is today, the body organized to bring the community together for the betterment of Denton.

Dentonite and attorney A.C. Owsley served as the Chamber’s first president, from 1909 until 1913, when he was elected to the Texas legislature. He went on to serve as Denton’s county and district attorney, was a decorated military officer during World War I, and an international diplomat for the rest of his life. Under his management, the Denton Chamber was established to “represent and serve its members by providing leadership on key issues that impact economic growth, educational excellence, quality of life and diversity of the Denton community.”

Since Owsley’s days, the Chamber has remained consistent in its role, shepherding projects that have indeed shaped Denton throughout the 20th century and into this millennium. Super highways, the Denton Airport, water rights when Lewisville Lake was established, FEMA, Peterbilt, Victor Equipment and the Denton State School are just a few such examples.

The Denton State School story of 1957 is a great picture of the Chamber’s leadership in Denton history. After strategizing a plan to woo the State to build the new State School in Denton, the Chamber led a campaign to raise funds to purchase 200 acres that, in turn, they would give to the State for the school. The Chamber raised about $90,000 on day one of the 34-day Mental School Cash Campaign, realizing a total of $102,000 by the campaign’s end. Today, the State School supports 22 Texas counties and is a major Denton employer.

The Chamber’s story is not all business. Remember the mission statement’s inclusion of positively influencing citizens’ quality of life? Back in the late 70s, the Chamber was instrumental in starting Spring Fling, Denton’s first arts festival that, under the direction of the Denton Festival Foundation, has morphed into our largest signature event: the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival. The Chamber promotes art and music and fun.

When Carroll Boulevard was a brand-new thoroughfare, the Chamber led a community-engaging fundraising effort to purchase and donate the more than 200 redbud trees that still line its median today. The Chamber supports beautification.

In the 1960s, the Chamber embarked on one of the most aggressive promotional campaigns of any city its size, “Dynamic Denton.”  With the theme song “We’ve Got Go,” the Chamber did just that when a 26-member Chamber delegation spent their own time and money to take Denton on the road from New York to Los Angeles, touting the city and recruiting new business. That hasn’t changed. The Chamber advertises Denton.

In 1985, the Chamber began Leadership Denton to equip and encourage Denton’s future leadership. Since then, more than 500 leaders have emerged through the program. The Chamber invests in tomorrow.

Recently, some have questioned what the Denton Chamber of Commerce does and why. Today’s column is the first in a series that I hope will shed light on the Chamber’s role and why it is absolutely still vital.

This week, we’ve gone back in time to the beginning. We’ve looked at the Chamber’s work and its effects that shaped the Denton we know and love today. That work has never slowed down.

While ours is one of only 250 accredited Chambers of Commerce in the U.S, that’s not the only thing unusually special about us. Next week, we’ll look at the Chamber in the now and why our structure makes us especially unique and effective.