Yakima Commercial Club

April 22, 2010

Crowds gather in 1911 for the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Masonic Temple. Members of the Yakima Commercial Club began meeting there in 1912.

Consider, for a moment, the decision confronting restless men and women from the East or Midwest around the turn of the 20th century.

The West was wide open; all that was required was a pioneering spirit. But which burgeoning town to settle in? Where was the work? Where was the fertile land?

Now consider it from the town’s point of view. How do community leaders in, say, the 1890s get the word out? That was the problem facing Yakima.

An undated photo of a postcard extolling the virtues of the Yakima Valley.

And the answer: the Yakima Commercial Club.

“It was in 1893 that a few moving spirits got together and conceived the idea of a club designed to look after the business interests of Yakima — then not much more than a wide spot in the road — to lend assistance to the struggling farmer and stockman, and to lay the foundation for a city whose importance as a trade center would extend throughout Central Washington,” W.D. Lyman wrote in his 1919 tome,“History of the Yakima Valley.”

A precursor to the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce, the Commercial Club did indeed support local business. But it was the second part of that goal, the bit about laying a foundation, that became the club’s lasting legacy.

In 1903, the club incorporated and sold $100 shares to 500 members. Annual membership dues were $100 — no small amount of pocket change back in the day.

With $50,000, club members traveled to world’s fairs in St. Louis, Chicago, Portland, Seattle and even the Alaska territory, distributing brochures that heralded the Yakima Valley’s good weather and fertile soil.

The Masonic Temple in the final stages of construction in September 1911.

By the early 20th century, the Commercial Club became almost like a real estate business. While the existing real estate men didn’t much like the competition, the club’s ability to spread the word and its political clout was unmatched in Central Washington.

Its members included those who belonged to the Yakima Social Club, which according to Lyman included “some blue-blooded aristocrats from England and some early settlers who literally had money to burn.”

Among the Commercial Club’s early leaders were several recognizable names: Col. W.F. Prosser (for whom the town was named), J.M. Gilbert, Edward Whitson, Alex Miller, O.A. Fechter, George Donald, Frank Horsley, A.J. Splawn and Frederick Mercy.

Club members met in the Clogg Building on Yakima Avenue, before moving in 1912 to the fourth floor of the new Masonic building at the corner of Fourth and Yakima, where they had a card room, billiard room, leather upholstered chairs and room to seat 200 people.

In addition to bringing people to Yakima, the club had an interest in shipping goods west to the markets and harbors of Seattle. Toward that end, it lobbied in 1913 “and finally succeeded in getting adequate federal and state aid for the Snoqualmie Pass (Interstate 90) highway,” Lyman wrote.

The Yakima Commercial Club also went to Olympia to push for irrigation and horticulture laws as well as money for an armory and the state fair.

That sort of work is how most chambers of commerce get their start, said Mike Morrisette, director of the modern version of the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce. Businessmen and businesswomen will determine mutually beneficial goals and band together to reach them, he says.

“The idea was to provide a welcoming environment to business and to help attract other business,” Morrisette says. “It really hasn’t changed.”

By Pat Muir

The Masonic Temple is shown in winter.

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