This year the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Originally established as The Conway Board of Trade in 1891, it mostly supported business in the early years. The first board president was Captain W.W. Martin.
In 1919 the Conway Board of Trade was succeeded by the Conway Commercial Club. Some of its accomplishments included pledging $30,000 to the Central College building program and raising funds to finance the Revilo Hotel (later the Bachelor)
In the early 1920s, the Club raised $50,000 to build a training school at Arkansas State Normal School (now UCA) and spearheaded a funding campaign to keep Conway Public Schools open when it faced a financial crisis in the early 1920s. The Commercial Club operated until 1927 when the Conway Chamber of Commerce was formed.
The first officers of the Chamber, as incorporated in 1927, were Jo Frauenthal, president; H.L. McAlister, vice-president; and T.M. Williams, secretary. The first Board of Directors included V.D. Hill, R.H. Maddox, Fred Gordy, J.J. Hiegel, J.E. Little, George Shaw, H.D. Russell, W.O. Wilson, and Theodore Smith. The Chamber had 157 members when it was incorporated. Frauenthal served as president until 1931.
The first Board meeting was held in the Chamber room in the Ingram Building at 7 p.m., January 17, 1927. The object and purpose of the organization, as set forth in the constitution, was to promote the agricultural, civic, commercial and industrial welfare of the City of Conway, Faulkner County and adjacent territory.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Chamber was engaged in numerous agricultural activities. T.M. Williams, the Chamber’s secretary, had extensive training in agriculture and had served as a county farm demonstrator for six years. He provided advice and assistance to farmers free of charge.
The Chamber also persuaded fifty of Conway’s citizens to put up $100 each to buy registered dairy calves to be raised by fifty Faulkner County boys. Each boy paid back the $100 investment to the merchant when the calves were later sold. The Chamber also promoted the growth of strawberries and cotton in the community by awarding premium money each year for the first crate of strawberries and the first bale of cotton brought in each year.
After World War II, the Chamber played a major role in building Lake Conway and in bringing International Shoe Company to Conway. It also initiated a financial plan for establishing the Virco plant south of town.
Various Chamber committees have initiated projects that have impacted the community to create a better environment. The City Planning Commission and United Way of Faulkner County started as a Chamber projects. The Chamber’s City Beautiful Committee circulated petitions to provide for municipal trash and garbage pickup.
The Chamber also played a major role in Conway’s industrial development. The Chamber’s Industrial Committee organized the Conway Development Corporation in 1959 to help bring in new industrial jobs. The CDC developed the Conway Industrial Park. The Chamber’s Road Committee campaigned for the building of the Toad Suck Bridge so that Perry County residents could access Conway more easily.
In the early 1950s the Chamber helped pay moving expenses to relocate the Civil Defense headquarters in Conway. A few years later, the Chamber helped establish the Arkansas Children’s Colony and the AETN studios in Conway.
The Chamber’s headquarters was in the upstairs of the First National Bank building until December 1950 when it the moved to 909 ½ Front Street. In April, 1956, the organization moved to larger quarters at 905 Front Street where it remained until the roof collapsed during a heavy rain in 1973. The Chamber was then located at 901 Parkway until 1977 when it occupied its new $100,000 building located at Main and Parkway.
In 1999, the Chamber, under the leadership of the late Lloyd Westbrook, built the two-story brick building on Oak Street. Conway Development Corporation also has offices there. Rogers Plaza and the arched "Historic Downtown Conway" sign across Oak Street have recently been added to present a welcoming face to downtown Conway.
As part of the anniversary celebration, the Chamber recently held a luncheon honoring 125 years of Chamber leadership. There have been 70 men and women who have served as Chamber presidents during this time. Fifty past chairs (or their descendants) were present for the special occasion. Each was presented with a canvas nighttime photo of the Chamber building and Rogers Plaza. The canvas was personalized with the former president’s name and year they served as chair.
Cindy Burnett Beckman is a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.