The Etowah Chamber of Commerce lost its long-time director, Durant Tullock, who passed away in September.
It’s a sad time for the chamber, but the leadership is working through the transition and developing a plan to move forward.
Fortunately, Etowah’s chamber is not saddled with monthly rent or utility payments. Having a home in the Etowah Depot is very helpful. Previous Etowah chambers were not so lucky. Or resilient.
Etowah’s first chamber of commerce was created in 1913. Its administrative duties were apparently handled out of the Etowah Water & Light Company.
I say “apparently” because the Etowah Historical Commission found reports of the first
chamber’s expenditures and projects while looking over old Etowah Water & Light Company ledgers.
Those records reveal that the Etowah chamber sold “shares” to pay for a new baseball field that was built near the Etowah City Cemetery. Baseball was a big deal in Etowah in the early 20th century and it appears the fledgling chamber responded to the specific needs of Etowah in that specific moment.
After World War I came along, the Etowah chamber dissolved. The town was consumed with concerns over the war and its young men serving abroad, not to mention the Spanish Flu pandemic that was raging at the same time.
In 1928, the second Etowah chamber was formed and operated for the next 13 years, a time that would have been challenging for a chamber. The Great Depression hit in 1929 and persisted until 1941. The L&N shops in Etowah closed and the L&N’s Division Headquarters moved from Etowah to Knoxville.
A fair amount of boosterism and economic development efforts were led by the Etowah Kiwanis Club during the 1920s and later by the Etowah Lions Club. The Sportswear Mill building was built in 1938 by an organization called Etowah Industries, Inc, so I’m not sure what the chamber’s focus was during that time.
The Etowah chamber reorganized for the third time in 1947 but folded in 1951, possibly due to the Korean War.
In 1960, Mike Cantrell led the movement to reactivate the Etowah Chamber of Commerce. Doors and windows were installed in the stone bandstand located in front of the L&N Depot and the chamber set up shop there.
Cecil Miller was elected as its first president and Margie Harper was hired as the first executive secretary. The bandstand served as headquarters for the Etowah Chamber of Commerce for the next 21 years.
In 1981, after the Etowah Depot restoration was complete, the City of Etowah offered the Etowah chamber free office space inside the depot. The new office was located on the ground floor in the same room that is now occupied by the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association.
Nancy Dender was put in charge of making the space look good. An old metal desk and several metal cabinets were sprayed with shiny cobalt blue car paint.
I remember Nancy rushing into the office with yellow and blue plaid fabric swatches to upholster the couch.
I thought the new office looked very bright and snazzy and up to date. Charlie Hilton, a retiree from Beunit Fibers, was hired as the new chamber secretary, replacing Frank McKinney who had retired.
In the mid 1980s, after Etowah shifted from a commission form of government to a city manager structure, Joe Yarbrough was hired as Etowah’s first city manager.
This happened just as Tennessee was gearing up for “Homecoming 86,” the brainchild of Gov. Lamar Alexander.
Joe viewed “Homecoming 86” as an opportunity. He, along with the new Etowah City Commission, pushed and cajoled to gain support from the railroad (now CSX) and the State of Tennessee for Etowah to host spring and fall passenger train excursions on the Old Line between Etowah and Copperhill as part of the 1986 celebration.
Next, the City of Etowah secured a special appropriation from the State of Tennessee for what was termed “community preparation.” Part of those funds were spent for a brand new office for the Etowah Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber was responsible for marketing, ticket sales, logistics and most of the activities surrounding the train excursions and Joe believed the organization needed a larger office.
The city bought new furniture and moved the chamber into the large room at the south end of the depot — where the office remains today.
With corporate headquarters leaving small towns, and locally owned businesses crowded out by chain stores with little interest in the towns where they locate, rural chambers have struggled in recent years.
Often, people ask me how a small town like Etowah can afford a chamber of commerce. One answer is — the City of Etowah.
Free rent and utilities represent a significant contribution for any organization.
Chamber volunteers are important assets too because volunteers often perform tasks that paid staff might handle in other places.
The most successful chambers are mission driven. I know that’s a trendy thing to say, but it’s easy to get distracted and unintentionally move away from an organization’s intended mission.
Hopefully, as part of its transition, the Etowah Chamber of Commerce will revisit its mission, determine if it should be tweaked, review past projects and activities, study its finances and move ahead.
Change can be challenging but I’m confident the Etowah Chamber of Commerce will find a way forward. It’s been doing that for over 60 years.